Icarus flew too near the sun
Into the blue his red wax did run
It fell to the earth and sealed the scroll
That daredevil angels alone would unfold
-Hawkwind, "The Only Ones"
Over Glimmer 7-26, a planet so massive that its rocky surface was cave-drained of air and showed only the dim sparks of negative simgrav outposts, a seastorm spacebird shimmied into gridspace and its crew awaited boarding by the police cutter that had cast its light into their story.
Under a spiderweb dome, a haggard priestess wrapped a dead raven in the most luminous scraps of his forlorn nest. Then she tore off the outer of her two dresses, wrapped the bird in it, and placed him reverently in the freezer.
"You look like a dead milkmaid." Lounging on the couch, a surly boyish flapper sipped a bottomless rumbottle. "It's an improvement."
Toward the front, a time-battered space drifter looked up at the warptube exit and held out his arms while a dragonfly drone hovered before his heart, flashing knives and needles. He winced as it tore off his faded Captain's patch, and sewed on a badge like a cloth clockwork.
"Are you sure?" he said. "I don't feel like a level four."
Over at the console, painted on the hull, stood a woman both bookish and dissolute, like a pirate professor, whose bearing and expression shifted constantly in a flywing blur of paintdrones. She said, "You used a level four tool to make a level four artifact. Now you will live up to that."
"But that was in a dream."
She laughed. "Are you trying to claim level five?"
The copship popped the slot, a round-tipped flared cylinder, red and black and chrome all dirtied from some feral descent, and just as tiny as its target.
"A bulletship!" the man said. "It's a good thing we didn't run."
"The Glimmer warptube is under Pirate Law," said the painted avatar. "The maximum penalty for running is ten lashes from a tickly whip."
"Oooh!" From behind, the creepy priestess groped his chest. "It's not too late."
From the bullet's underbelly, an accordion proboscis extended to nuzzle the tail of the jalopy, and maglatched to its gentle uptube.
She came through the airlock door like a regal barbarian, with the playful swagger of her police clan and the strangeness of her homeworld, in a uniform like black candy cane, bronze skin scuffed and hair askew from her adventures.
"My name is Treblinka Von Zerelli, agent of the law and Scrollkin timepilot. Who's in charge here?"
The man spoke. "Torisa Rosaluna, Flow priestess, is the owner of this ship. I'm Quintillion Furlong, mechanic and driver, and this is our aesthetics officer, Captain Desdenova Solarin."
Blink pulled out a sheet of paper, turned it landscape-wise, and compared it to the crew. "Is that all?"
The painted lady spoke. "Triskaideka, navigator."
"And there should also be a dead bird."
Torisa burst into tears. "He's only been dead for twenty minutes!" She yanked the paper from the cop's hands. "What is this sorcery?"
On the page was a colorful waxpencil drawing, both childish and precise. There were Quint's sparkly eyes and his new badge, her own freckles and underdress, Desdenova's fingerdreads and clashing flair, Trixie split down the middle, half silver machine and half spacewitch, and Nimrod on his back with x's for eyes, just the feet of his ghost flying off the edge. And below them, their ship, blue-black with lightning highlights from tentacly tip to barnacly engine.
Dez looked over Torisa's shoulder. "It's perfect. Who drew this?"
Blink beckoned, and out from the shadowy gate, shyly, stepped a spring-footed elf maiden with a scar-blazed face. She gaped and marveled at the ramshackle bridge as if it were the altar of heaven.
"We've never seen her," Quint said.
Torisa yanked his ear. "Don't make up for it all at once."
"She's six years old," the cop said, "mentally. There was a freak accident in simworld immersion. It's a miracle she's not in full savepod coma."
The girl looked among them like they were star performers, and she tensed in anticipation of the stage.
"What's your name?" Quint said.
"I am Princess Cataria Meerschaum! Everyone calls me Caty."
Torisa said, "How did you come here?"
Caty opened her hand and settled it like a spider on the crown of her head. "My sister lifted me from the tower. She's so sad."
"Your sister?" Blink said.
"The other me. The one who got left behind." She made a little hop. "But I get to go to space!"
Torisa said, "How did you draw that picture?"
"Par and I have been watching you."
Blink said, "Pareidolia is a disincarnated level five."
Trixie's avatar stilled and her paintdrones hung like whispers.
Torisa said, "Level five in what?"
Blink made an awkward face. "It's hard to say."
"Well what was she good at?"
Caty said, "Breaking things. Can I see it?"
Quint and Torisa looked at each other.
"The time engine!"
"It's okay," Blink said. "She told me your story on the way here, and your possession of the engine is perfectly legal. You did seriously violate causality by sending information back in time, but I don't enforce that law."
Trixie said, "Who does?"
The new handflight console stood like a crooked podium, still half in its box, next to an open floorpanel showing optical cables and transpolaric conduits. A globelike navwheel bulged from the top, its base hidden by a ratty blanket.
Quint pulled it away, uncovering a golden donut whose baroque traceries were no longer the orgiastic nightmare he remembered. Unseen, the surface had changed to a comic-strip panorama of whimsical revelry.
Caty crept up. "Can I touch it?"
"Go ahead," Torisa said.
Like a mirrorcrack innertube, the torus swelled to meet her hands and puffed with a thousand crystal-tipped prickles.
Torisa gasped. "It changes under six eyes!"
"Snakemetal," Quint said, "an uncanny smithcraft lost the last three million years."
Dez said, "Not long enough. That style is souvenir-coin kitsch."
Again the surface shifted, now a watery sheen on which urban glyphs swam like fishes. Transfixed, Desdenova drew closer, gasped, and passed out. Caty giggled.
Torisa said, "Five eyes."
A quick layer of paint dropped Trixie's symbolic eyelids. "I withdraw my consensus-fixing perspective."
Blink looked hard at Trixie. "A Blip can't do that."
"That's only true under the standard model of intersubjectivity."
While Blink argued math with Trixie, the ring stretched to a rattlesnake hulahoop and bounced off the globe to balance on Caty's palm, where it spun like a gyroscope.
Caty closed her eyes. "Two!"
Unseen by all, a drone sprinkled dust on Torisa, who lowered her face and sneezed.
In that moment, seen only by the mechanic, the ring leapt from Caty's hand, or possibly she threw it, and briefly the radial spacedome revealed itself as a concentric grid of simwindows, which blanked as the golden splash passed.
Six perspectives ascended. Torisa said, "Where did it go?"
Quint looked around. "I think it's merged with our hullmetal."
Trixie crooned ecstatically. "Confirrrmed."
"Faeward saints!" Blink looked around in indignant confusion. "What is this place?"
Above the dome flashed a star-white javelin. The police cutter crumpled and wheeled away into the dark. The silky airbridge tore away only after spinning the jalopy so hard as to overwhelm simgrav and throw the crew tumbling to the walls.
As the ship stabilized, the simwindows flared to gravspectrum, and they saw a fuzzy green beam grab the top of the dome, joined by three more that spread to grip them in tetrahedral gravlock.
"Oh, no," Blink said. "This is all my fault."
Winking into gridspace from the warptube node, one by one, came the skeleton carrionbirds of the Thanan armada.
Perhaps, like Odysseus himself, the two youngsters would encounter lotus-eaters and sirens and unspeakable Laestrygonians.
-George R Stewart, Earth Abides
Crafton Veer and Wyzzyx Perceva stood entranced at the becrystalled sphincter of the Scroll, the rabbithole satellite's diameter now shrunk to a tunnel thrice their height, so tight that Crafton swooned.
"I'm headrushing," he said, "from the gravity gradient in my own body."
Perceva said, "That's why the palace ballcourt is on the top floor."
Over his head, riding the zero-G core of the cylinder, a dust-tendril undulated in aircurrents, and their feet were half buried in gleaming octohedrons like gaming dice.
"What are these things?" He picked up a handful and she gasped.
"They're our memories. Every exile leaves one."
"Are we not supposed to touch them?"
"If you were Scrollkin, you would have touched your own, just now, and be on your knees with the astonishment of who you were." She eyed him like a gift stripped of its final wrapping. "You really are an outscroller."
"So where are my memories?"
"Somewhere in chainspace, most likely in a Sifrexan databerg. But it's strange." She turned his chin. "You feel like one of my own people."
"You keep warning me that they're all dweebs."
She laughed. "You have no idea. Dinner tonight will be scandalous."
Crafton looked forward down the floating dustvein to a shifty zone where it scattered and reflected a light more fiery.
"Just for a minute," he said, "Let's step over."
"You're a dangerous man." She took his hand and they shuffled through a billion years of gembound memories to the glassy gate between Scroll and Backscroll. Before them, perspective and gravity bowed down and a bluish center bloomed to a circle of sky above a crater where high-scattered memgems sparkled.
Another step and the crater opened to a great bowl in a red stone desert under a coppery sun, and they stood just short of the rim. Another step and they were two dots on a plane flat as a page.
Crafton leaned and Perceva gripped his hand as if he dangled from a precipice. "One more step," she said, "and we can't go back. If the plane goes convex, the gate is no longer geographical but intuitive. You could wander a thousand miles looking for a door that's right next to you."
"Sounds like my life."
Again she studied his face, his innocent eyes and devilish wrinkles, his sharp beard and tousled hair. "I'm dying to know what you did."
"Your daughter is out there somewhere. Are you worried?"
"Ha! Your world should fear her. Now come."
The cave entrance was already so subtle that he might have missed it without her help.
On the way up the tunnel, they passed a tugdrone shepherding some folded-up mechanism into the eye. Crafton stopped to watch.
"A fabdrone," Perceva said, "and too early. Someone had foreknowledge of this breach."
In a red stone desert, ripping a dustwake from a snaky path around gullies and rises, a streamlined speedwagon sped, buffering the bumpy ground on gravbearings like fiery beachballs.
Riding the car's backcabin like a surfer, a flaxen-haired princess turned her face to the sky in lazy ecstasy and tasted the waves of this new-minted land.
"It tastes old," she said, "like a tomb."
In the driver's seat, her cousin Shadrach grinned like a wolf and skittered the car in a dusty arc around a rocky spire. "The Lonely Planet is time-arbitrary. Dream-jailers dodged paradox by constricting what could be known. When the gates blew, paradox got burned off in lost memories and the upstirring of deep time."
She opened her eyes. "What do you guess for the radius?"
"Ten thousand years."
She laughed. "I meant the radius of this planet, or whatever it is. The Scroll is only fifty miles. This looks bigger."
"Ten times bigger, I'd say."
"But still much smaller." She scanned the horizon. "Because it curves in every direction. Hey!"
Cataria jumped off the car. In the gust of her velocity, watching the ground rise, she carefully turned a single forward flip and came out of the tuck leaning back sharply, one foot planted and the other skimming frontward. In a series of skids and flips, she slowed and finally alit at the tip of a spreading dustcloud.
Shadrach brought the car around. "My princess, are you hurt?"
"Don't call me that."
His face drew back startled, gathered itself, and turned over as his mind puzzled the words. "Cataria," he said, "that stunt would have killed your sister."
She grinned. "You're too kind. But look." On the heel of her left hand was a red scuff. "I can do better."
"Why did you jump?"
"We've been here before." She pointed. "That rock looks like a bear with a mushroom hat. Remember?"
Shadrach squinted, nodded, and looked at the dashboard, frowning. "The compass says we're curveless on the long axis."
"The compass thinks we're on the inside of a cylinder, when we're on the outside of an apparent sphere. We're missing something."
"Then our next move is obvious."
"You're right." She got in the car. "Follow the short axis."
On the dashboard the fourpoint needle pivoted, tall star to pinnacled horizon, and the land rose. They found the throat of a canyon, and the gravbearings swelled into oblate blobs of dustchurn that straddled a zigzag rut as they climbed.
Cataria pointed. "The sun."
As if the sky were a twisting mirror, the sun jumped to a new spot and spun its burden of shadows.
Shadrach sighed. "Feels like home. I haven't seen sunblink for a subjective quarter century."
"On the Scroll, you'd have to go ten thousand miles from the Eye before you saw that. We haven't gone fifty."
"And not even one mile on the short axis, which seems to have caused it."
"The Backscroll," Cataria said, "has swapped its axes! The short axis is eyeward-faeward, and the long axis circles itself." She marveled at the brushmetal sky as the sun blinked again, and then twice more.
Around a sandy bank the car shuffled and puffed up a steeper rise. The sun blank and capered until its jitter cracked the persistence of vision, and they saw above them an ocean of blinding lightspikes rolling in waves.
As the landship crested the plateau, a darkness rose astern like the sky's eyelid and closed over their heads as they sputtered forward, finally squeezing the sundrunk sky to a sliver before them, a long wall of light that tweaked and fuzzed.
Cataria said, "On the Glimmer skimship, I took a shroomtrip with the shaman, and coming out, I squinted my eyes just like that, and turned the light of glowlichens to spun-gold."
"Hypnongromie," Shadrach said, "is the name of that spiritual practice. When your eyes walk the line between open and shut, your mind bridges the gap between creation and pre-creation. The architect of N'fal, fifty-towered city of the faeward windplains, said he drew it all from the light of a broken growlamp."
The car stalled. Shadrach gripped the wheel and groaned. "The engine exploits the uncertainty differential of the eyeward-faeward axis to tap the zero-point. This place has overloaded it."
Cataria's face glowed. "Then we continue on foot."
Come kiss these lips that have no meat
And leave your souls down at my feet
Remove your clothes, remove your earthly goods
You're going with me to the fairy woods!
-Exuma, "Paul Simon Nontooth"
The swamp air was like bitter syrup, and stark treetrunks rose like the columns of a dread temple to a gothic vault of branch-crotch arches and drooping leaves.
Over still water slicked with rainbow muck came a skiff of genemodded carbonfiber cattail and polypropylene pine resin, shallow and wide like an arrowhead leaf whose upcurled edges were ragged with moss.
In the bow, her back turned trustingly to their path, sat the native, Chthon huntress Brillix Windigo. Her skin was like red clay and her long black hair was tangled and matted like grass, now tossed by the burnished metallic hawkbeetle scales of her living armor as it spun spiral waves to radiate heat.
"Before we venture the Archaic Eruption," she said, "you must know your animal, and your class."
"Human," said the man facing her. "Space cop." Dusty Astroglide sat loose and poised in a uniform of red and black zebra-striped leather from the great vatworks on Minos 4-3.
She laughed and patted his knee. "You can't be human, that's the point, and spacecop is your role in a complex civilization. Imagine yourself in the dream below us, and remember yourself as a child."
Back-to-back with Dusty sat the adventurer Levi Ripp, his Devonian spidercanvas shorts stained with his own blood, his hairy torso bare and wiry and pulling the oars like the arms of a dancing lover. "Your people," he said to his actual lover, "the Glimmer, are known as peaceful, but I know better."
Balanced on the boat's concave stern, Godzuki Toke nearly bounced, so far was this world's teasing gravity from the dense embrace of her homeworld. "You're right," she said. "We are peaceful cave dwellers because chemwars scorched the air of our Prime."
"I didn't even know that." Levi grinned widely. "I was just thinking of last night."
Zuki stuck our her tongue, and up front, Brillix caught the gesture.
"You show the spirit of the ape," she said. "Already the Eruption is changing us."
Dusty said, "She does that all the time."
"Then is the Ape my animal?"
"No," Levi said. "But it could be mine, if using my tongue counts."
Zuki shot back, "Your mother was a hyena."
"It's one part in a thousand," he said proudly, "Which makes her my eighth-great grandmother."
"You have her big teeth."
"All the better to eat you with."
"Now that's an obscure reference," Brillix said. "Levi, you show knowledge of primal myth. How would you class us?"
"First, Zuki, you're not an ape. Outside you are a dreamy soapbubble, but inside you are buzzing and headbutting in sun-drunk glee. Your developed role is ethertech, an uncanny far speaker, and medtech, which you interpret as intuitive dispensing of headmeds. So you're something magical, but also vigorous and nomadic. You're a bumblebee wizard."
She nodded. "That sounds right."
"Levi," Brillix said, "do me next."
"Switch." The two men stood up and timed their footfalls to balance the boat. Dusty took the oars, and Levi, a hunter of deep time and wide space, faced a hunter of dangerous beasts on one fell planet.
"You're calm but playful, and predatory, obviously a cat. A jaguar. And your class is not ranger, it only seems that way from the wildness of your homeworld. But you are its protector, and your armor is the swamp's shining platemail. You're a knightly champion! Could it be that you face the Archaic Eruption in resistance?"
She pointed her finger. "Don't fuck with me, dog boy. When the tides of the night of the mind crest our necks and we tread the waters of madness, we'll see who's surfing and who's choking." She cackled.
"That's it," Dusty said. "I'm a surfer!"
"Not primal enough," Brillix said, "or too primal."
Levi said, "What waves do you surf?"
"The waves of crime." Dusty plunged and tugged the oars. "The slippery edge between right and wrong."
"You mean that you don't seek to end wrongness, but only ride it to remain barely in the right?"
"Then you're a lawful rapscallion. And your animal is some kind of seabird. A gannet."
"Now," Said Brillix, "what am I really?"
"Your armor is a mask. When you are most yourself, it comes off."
Dusty said, "And fast."
Levi continued. "You stalk prey that could fling you like a stick, and it rejoins the Swamp Mother without ever knowing you were there. You are an assassin."
"Now you flatter me. But what are you?"
Levi opened his throat to the crusty canopy and loosed an ecstatic arpeggio of intoxicating chirps. From somewhere ahead, in answer, came a thunder of wings, and a flock of sapphire herons burst through the leaves in a shaft of sun and showered the skiff with bile.
"Sorry," Levi said through acidic drizzles of green goo. "I'm still learning their dialect."
"You got it right," Brillix said. "On Chthon, even filth is a blessing. And just in time."
The skiff drifted into a tripsie glade where grass-dense rush tips ringed a swell of springwater like a crystalline hillock. Ice-white butterflies frolicked and feasted on nectardrops transmuted from the spring's divinity by a squat etherbeast whose walrus outline shimmered in the faelight. Above, down a cavelike shaft in the treecanyons, sunlight was polarized and then transpolarized by a hierarchy of gossamer sungoblins digesting the tension between earth and sky.
Brillix said, "Take off your clothes and dive!"
Zuki lifted and dropped layers of iridescent tassels, Dusty unzipped and stripped his striped vatleather, Levi shuffled off his shorts, and Brillix twisted a signal to her living armor which peeled and slithered into the water. Brillix dove after it, Levi bellyflopped, Dusty cannonballed, and Zuki paused, pale on the stern, intuiting an uncanny warning.
So near was this fountain-flooded glade to the land of dreams that her eye stumbled unaided into etherspace, where the spring was a lance of brassy light and the etherbeast was a spongy thimble who changed the beam to blue electric arcs rising like brushstrokes to a wavy canvas of sky.
That plane of space was speckled with stars like needletips poking a quilt, each star a nexus of stitchlines showing stories big and small. To read those stories now, with her back to the plane of earth, was tempting, but instead she mounted the beast and rode a bright spark straight up to space.
Per the optics of ether, no resolution was lost, and her apparent position was a function of her attention. As she pulled back from the Plane of Worlds, Zuki's infinite retina backzoomed until the spring's lightbeam was a sapling in a forest of skyward surges, a grassstalk on the backlawn of the gods.
That grasspatch was a green island in a river of sand, an aqua tile on a grouted floor, the tiles rolling in waves and the groutlines rising like seafoam in a storm.
(Philosophically, that seafoam is Potential: story-grains too small for the eye and too big for the head, clinging together to stay afloat on the membrane between real and unreal. In the far-faeward Scroll, this boundary manifests as the Fountain of Divine Pinholes.)
With her eye's backside pressed to the blanket of space, Zuki squeezed into far outzoom, and there was the whole seastorm, now a long rip of raw stuffing on the splotchy bedspread of the Worldplane. Even as she watched, the rip widened and stretched, and the fluff surged and roiled.
Deep in trance, her earthbound mouth slurred, "Something's wrong. Get back in the boat!" The water was still.
Behind her the Plane of Space parted, and as she fell through, she watched the worldplane in max outzoom. The great rip shrank to a hairsbreadth, and to either side, the blanket's shapes suggested two enormous eyes. It was her own face, and it shrank like a closing hole in cold black water, and closed.
She woke gasping on the boatstern, alone. The spring bled a trickle of rust-colored mud, and in a fizzle of sandy subsoil, expired.
His words were drowned in a cry which burst simultaneously from a hundred lips, 'Slay the White Wizard; preserve our cattie.'
-Henry Cadwallader Adams, Hair-Breadth Escapes
"Give us the girl."
More puritanical than satanic, the Thanan commander stood in a kingly skeleton costume, gold-thread bones on satiny black. They watched him on one side of a splitscreen that covered the front of the underdome, and on the other side they counted the might of their captors, black wings of boneships blotting the stars.
"I believed them," Blink said, "that they didn't want to kill her, at least not in my custody. So I let them track us."
"Who are they?" Caty said.
Quint said, "And what did she do?"
Blink looked at Caty and considered her words. "Those people are Thanans. They have so much fun that they get themselves killed, and rise the next day from their savepods. But Cataria started a trend of keeping their bodies to gather beautiful scars."
Caty said, "How?"
"There's a video, you can see it when you're older. Anyway, their way of life is threatened, and they blame you. They plan to kill you while all of Thanas watches."
The girl scowled at the man on the screen. "He doesn't look scary."
"You have ten minutes!" he said. "It is best for all of us if she comes voluntarily, and alone. But one way or another, we will have her."
Torisa looked at Trixie. "What do we do?"
"Easy. We give them the girl."
Blink said, "I do not accept her sacrifice."
"Oh," Trixie said, "She'll be fine."
"How can you be so sure?"
"She has the strongest plot armor I've ever seen, or heard of."
"Who are you to see plot armor?"
"I'm a level five divinatory correlator."
A butterfly drone settled on Treblinka's shoulder and whispered in her ear. Her face looked puzzled, then startled, then she blushed.
"Get out of my head!"
"I'm no telepath," Trixie said, "only a reader of subtle omens." Still the drone whispered.
"Okay," Blink laughed. "Stop! I accept your credentials."
She turned. "Caty, do you understand the danger ahead? I can make no promises."
Staring past her, the girl remembered her home. "Our priest always says, there is no promise but to merge with the nameless absolute. So long do we resist that delicious reunion."
At the heart of the Thanan armada hung the Paisley Bonedrake, a carrionbird-class flagship in the shape of a dragon, and deep between its spine and thighbones lay the egg-shaped chamber of Princess-Captain Kunigunda Angst.
There, spread-armed on the knifetable, Glimmer subcaptain Isandro Otranto bared his sweaty chest to his captor while she tickled his upper skin-layers with an obsidian scalpel, cutting a tapestry of bloodseeping spirals.
"Ow," Izzy said. "I need another numbstim."
Kuni sighed. "I'm losing ground. Yesterday you didn't request a second numbing until I was tracing the calyx."
Over Izzy's shoulder hovered a med-drone like a dragon-winged scorpion. It squeaked, "I suggest that I also inject a mild dissociative."
"Whatever," she said. "At this point I'm about ready to try a full-on Egodeath."
A knocking, fast and quiet, came from the chamber's gliding door. Kunigunda went to open it, and there stood her senior Prognosticator, Lamont Fang. His young face, a full week out of the pod, was already wrinkling with the wise and wicked persona he had gathered in a century of service to his dark craft.
He bowed and said, "Princess, I must confess."
"Enter and kneel."
At her feet, his head touched the antiseptic basketweave floortiles. "For three days you have not been the Captain of this ship, but its prisoner."
She stomped his fingers with her frilly-slippered foot. "How did this happen?"
"A secret mutiny, active from your first transgression, grew enough approval to swing the Blip. The ship's motive is now with the Rebirthists and against the Scarthanans."
"Scar-Thanans?" She rolled her eyes. "I didn't mean for this to become a trend."
He stood and sternly pronounced, "Even a non-Prog could see it coming. A Princess ritually scarred by a charming outchainer, keeping the scars and forsaking the ways of Thanas. Have you even seen the video?"
"And why are you telling me now?"
From both sides of the doorway came centurions in black onyx battle armor. Fang sneered, "To fuck with you, while the med-drone, on my orders, pumps the slave with a triple dose of Rage, so he can kill your elf-witch lover."
She spat in his face. "She has flummoxed your prognostications once already, and you're no smarter. I declare you permadead."
Two soldiers dragged her out, while four others attended the shackles of the bloodcaked podslave.
"Not yet," said the Prog. "Give me ten minutes."
Izzy's eyes grew ragged and sharp.
In the Bonedrake's ribcage cathedral, at the center of a herringbone mosaic, stood a mobile sacrifical rack, a great iron X whose limbs bore leather straps for all sizes of the damned.
On it, the elf princess stood like a Y. Guards to both sides hesitated to spread her legs so far, and shrank before the murmurs of the audience.
Lamont Fang stepped to the side of the Thanan commander, who hissed, "She's too innocent. Nothing like the brash seductress we portrayed. If we follow the script, we'll seem like villains, even among our own people."
"I saw this coming," said the Prognosticator, "and I have prepared another script."
The Barnacle Monolith Palace stands on a granite spur between the feathery waves of Farfromfae Beach and the snaky riot of the Eyecanyon Delta.
That wetland's seaward shoulder is a wall of stone, thick and tall as a stack of houses and a thousand miles long. In its shelter, the swampwater subtly rises and wavy channels merge and widen to the Eyecanyon River. The wall leans away from vertical, and its great stones expose their tops to make a brickwork of mosstussocks, mist-spritzed by the breaking cloudwaves of sea turned to sky.
As the wall approaches horizontal, the bricks sink to bedrock and the soil pushes the sky-sea up the concave curve of the Scroll. On the river's landward side, mountains squeeze the sea-sky to an azure vault, which slowly shrinks to a light-shot cornflower stripe, and finally to the sunslot, a luminous defile spitting rainclouds crosswise and blasting a daily beam down the east curve to the river, and up the west.
Nestled in those hemicylinders are checkerboards and hexgrids of green forest orchards and dun meadows where modrounceys roam. Croppatterns wrinkle like striped flags and whirl in spirals and wander off in wayward polkadots.
Villages splay like flowers, from circular centers of bone-white shrine-spires, over street-veined petals of playfields and estates, to patchwork fringes of gardenparks and twee gazebos.
Farther eyeward, the sunslot squints to a slit and the Scroll tightens and dries like the pearly tail of a castoff snakeskin. When its diameter is but a mile, the spindle airships loop at a translucent tower where elevators carry travelers to and from the station in Lidless City.
There streetlines of black sunbrick run the full circumference, and up on the scrollwall stark facilities embrace their courtyards like runic characters. Epic pinwheels turn to harvest moisture, feeding clear pools where sporadic Scrollkin swim.
Still farther eyeward, the industrial district bristles with pagodas fractionally distilling cryptomercury, their raildocks stacked with cuboid tanks like ancient dictionaries heavy with uncertain meaning. Still farther eyeward stands the Zirconium Panopticon, a—
"Wait, this is happening right now?" Crafton Veer sat at the center of a semicircular table's curve, flanked by Wyzzyx Perceva and her brother, Cryptkaiser Nestrak, and other scions of the terminal Eye.
"Yes," said Nestrak. "Your people call it 'live'. With eyetech pushing omniscience, and the editing of the Aestheticon, democratic surveillance becomes theatre."
The big viewscreen paused on the profile of the very pyramid that it stood inside, three triangles of a tetrahedron high as a churchroof, wall-windows thick as a handspan and clear as charged air. Above hung the sprial croplines of the morning and evening fields, split by the pencilthin sunslit.
"So why are the tanks piling up?" Crafton pointed and the screen blank back to the pagoda dock, where just now a bulky tugdrone hovered to place another cryptomercury brick.
"Does it have something do to with the opening of the dungeons?"
"Exactly," Perceva said. "Cryptomercury can jump the gap from Scroll to Chain through the mind-commerce and timeslips of the Lonely Planet. Now, with both sides cut off—"
"Rather than an export," Nestrak said, "it would be more exact to call it a fuel. Beyond the Iris we had a great chamber of decondensation nozzles opening labyrinths to the secret corridors of earthly influence."
"It is commerce," Perceva said, "because the Chain traded us their power." She said to Crafton, "Because we controlled your world, and they didn't, it was like two poles charged with different energy."
Nestrak said, "Cryptomercury is like your electricity, running your world like a motor."
"The voltage of Fate," Crafton mused. "What do they do with it, the cryptomercury, out in the Chain?"
"Divinatory mirrors," Nestrak said, "and on the nano scale, optical transistors." Excitedly he continued, "Mercury is already an extravagant base for transistors, but the Sifrexans believe, by using cryptomercury, they can engineer a transcended simbrain."
"Wait," Crafton said. "I can get this. They're trying to make a computer... that can do magic?"
"Miracles," said a blustery woman beyond Nestrak. "They suck our drainpipe and seek to spit out gods."
The physicist hung his jaw like an idiot.
"Dr. Veer," Nestrak said, "Meet our waste-to-energy specialist, Sludgedutchess Perelyx."
"Your voice," he said. "It's the Song from Space."
The food came. A procession of drones like airy jellyfish bore diverse plates of fruit to the Scrollkin, and for their guest, a great steaming bacon cheeseburger.
Perelyx leaned over Nestrak to sniff the greasy meat. "Oh," she crooned, "It's disgusting!" She sniffed it again.
"Ha! My voice couldn't awaken a frogpond, let alone a prisonworld. Pareidolia dragged farthest fae through the eye to get that voice. She only adopted the accent of my people."
Crafton goggled. "So there's a place where everyone sounds like you?"
"You're adorable," Perceva said. "Let's go there tomorrow."
At the margin of the desert, Cataria beheld the Hypnongromie of the Backscroll Eye, a woodsy lightsmear hinting at worlds bent to ambiguity by the thinnest splintering of their stories.
She reached behind her, caught Shadrach's hand, and pulled him forward. "It's like the Faewater I crossed between Scroll and Space. What do you see?"
With his own squint, Shadrach decrypted the light. "I see the whole Lonely Planet, put through a papershredder and glued together by a madman." He turned his head. "And stretched out like peeled appleskin, longer than the Scroll and wider."
"Do you trust me?"
"Then hold on."
They walked, and it closed behind them: a background of bottomless space the color of tightclosed eyes, and a foreground of prismatic white tickling red and blue, split into a forest of light-twigs whose branchings unfolded with every motion of perspective.
Cataria walked into the red. Down the fractal corridor, the colors resolved into orange and brown, yellow and black, green and blue.
"Wait," she said. "There's another world in here. A floater."
"Could it be a trap?"
"Better to risk a trap than miss an open door."
"You could argue," he said, "that even a trap is a passage, but one that takes you deeper through pain."
"Like when we were kids," she grinned, "and I locked you in a closet for a whole night."
Looking forward, she did not see his face. "After enough time," he said, "even if you come out by the same door, you come out in a different world."
"Look, we're almost there." Before them, a floating blue bug unfolded to an archaic railcar with windows like starry water and siding like moonglaze. A door opened.
"Son of space!" he heard her gasp, and felt her fingers slip away. The railcar shrank to a surging bluebird that merged with blue sky while Shadrach fell into red.
What did we do when we loosed this Earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray into infinite nothingness?
In space so deep that galaxies burned like blurry stars, drifted a ship so old that its solar sails were wispy tatters on masts encrusted with spacebronze.
Its body was a crooked cylinder like a rock-dented tophat, all studded with blocky diamond windows like punchholes in antediluvian datacards.
Its name was thirteen characters in some primal alphabet, half-worn to hullmetal by the brush of dustmotes less frequent than novae in the great spiral leaning at its stern.
The windows were black, but inside that blackness was life. Down one internal subcylinder, bundles of bio-optic ivy climbed gnarled-wood hullwalls on green-glowing tendrils to tickle the sim-sky, an angelhair furstrip carrying pastel lightpatterns like a frothy brook.
That cylinder's lower half was coal-black topsoil packed by spin-grav to bury the windows deep as coffins. Through this ground ran a mycelial civilization as old as the stars, and from it rose a shindeep forest of colorful trumpets and viscid caps.
Those fungal fruits were jostled and crushed, and the leaves of fruit-speckled sidebushes rustled, by the passage of a gurney. Its wheels were wicker-braided vines stiffened with resin, set in nut-oiled grooves on black wood axles.
Its engines were four sloths whose bio-cyber symbiosis was so old that their very dendrites were nanocrystalline silicon. Harnessed to the bamboo frame, they aimed the four wheels with wiry forelegs and turned them with backlegs so low-geared that they held their drowsing speed through a turn to a sidetunnel and up a winding ramp to the twilit depths of the ship.
Atop the gurney, stretched out on flaxcanvas, lay the Princess. Her skin hung slimy and translucent on bones still rubbery from the biovat, and her hair was damp and matted like the down of a hatchling raptor.
She emerged in a similar stretched cylinder, but its sides were flattened into a hexagonal prism, and its walls were steely and clean. Its floor hosted another genus of mycelia on a dense mat of keratin clippings, and its ceiling was rough with black lichens that drank the blue glow of phosphorescent vines.
The gurney stopped opposite its twin, whose sloths snoozed while its twin Princess awakened. Longer from the vat, her skin was pink and peeling, and now her eyelids crustily opened to a red-bearded face. She gasped and coughed a glob of vatgoo. "Foxle Spindrift!"
"You may call me that."
"What is this place?"
"I can't tell you."
"Is my sister here?"
"Listen, we've awakened you because this operation requires your consent."
Above and behind her eyes, pale thin fingers guided a red-glowing tentacle to a glistening skullhole.
"Pareidolia, is that you?"
Foxle put his finger to his lips. The tentacle plumbed the hole and its probing threads latched their cilia to Cataria's neurons and numbed her cortex.
In a moment of absolute bliss, she became neither person nor even perspective, only a few notes of the infinite symphony that says: nothing must come of this.
Then she stood again in the great hall of the Paisley Bonedrake, where she had been a prisoner, it seemed so long ago, but there was Captain Angst, her scar-tracery still red and half-scabbed, her hands and feet sloppily bound, and her elbow clutched by that pompous and incompetent Prognosticator.
Next stood some gold-boned pretender, and next stood Izzy, the man who hated her for his own weakness, holding a bloody black-glass knife. His hands were shackled but the Commander was reaching with a key, his hand moving at an ant's pace. Izzy's chest oozed and foamed with a web of cuts, some unfinished trashy flower, and his eyes burned with ambiguous menace.
"If we don't intervene," came Foxle's voice, "he's going to kill her."
There was herself, standing bound to the X-rack, and even in this fiftyfold timescrunch, she flashed a spirit so wild and fragile that Cataria's tablebody squeezed a tear from each eye, and her lips thinly whispered.
"We have to save her."
"You must give something."
"You must give your Anima."
"Tell me how."
Another voice rose, a reedy trill that multiplied into a crickety chorus. It sang:
Child, not your darkest dreams
Have bent to kiss the face of pain
Of life without the light that beams
Cathedral windows in your brain
That lidless luminescence blinks
From apse to narthex shadows rise
Though rainbows dance before your eyes
Your hungry mind no color thinks
Your blood will spoil, your body sag
From tail unfree to crown untrue
Lift up your head, my child, and drag
Through hell this shell of you
"I'm ready," she said. "Let it be known that I consent to the operation."
Still in the timbre of the song, the voice said, "Then step inside her."
From her locus in the Backscroll Hypnongromie, through the agency of some uncanny starship, to the vaulted heart of old Thanas beating its last, Princess Cataria Meerschaum stepped inside herself and gave her grace to the brat.
Pinned in the child's eye like a bug, she watched the frozen theater speed to life.
"Princess Cataria Meerschaum," the Commander intoned, "founder of the Scarthanan Heresy, meet your second convert."
He reached and unshackled the prisoner, whose blood-sticky podbody already showed his outchain origins, muscles honed in high-grav Glimmer infantry, and mind made cold by years in the dust of gridspace.
"Now we will all see," he continued, "what-"
Izzy turned and cut the Commander's throat.
Before the bloodspurt touched the floor, a sonic pulse like the striking of a glass gong froze every Thanan.
The sepulchral voice of the Bonedrake's Blip announced: "You must not act without this knowledge. I was instructed by the Prog to drug the prisoner with 3x Rage. But I was also instructed by the Princess-Captain to drug him otherwise."
Fang looked at Angst who looked up puzzled. "A numbstim?" Then she saw Izzy's eyes, two lascivious pools of nothing, and gasped. "That wasn't what I meant, and you know it!"
"At such a pivotal moment," the Blip continued, "I judged it best, and you gave me full legal scope, to summon the Supreme Arbiter. The slave is now summiting on 10x Egodeath after ritual mutilation, and holds a glassknife over the still-twitching body of your highest human authority. Can there be any doubt?"
The sonic throb subsided, and the crowd clumsily kneeled and chorused, "The Reaper!"
Indeed, the creature now moved with an inhuman smoothness as it stepped to face the Prog. Like a bored celebrity scribbling an autograph, it carved a glyph on his forehead and sealed it with acrid spittle. "Run to space, fool."
Lamont Fang ran.
The Reaper stepped to the dark princess, raised up her chin, caressed her soft throat with blood-slick fingers, and kissed her.
The crowd murmured, "Captain!"
The Reaper turned to the bright princess and threw the knife.
Possessed by some instinct, young Caty reached her teeth to catch the blade, and Cataria bit a cannonshot and fell away.
The maiden boasted pearly blooddroplets at both mouthcorners as she jerked her head to flip the blade to her hand, which caught and deftly twisted it to cut the leather wriststrap. In a flash she freed the other wrist and unbound her ankles.
The Reaper sprang like a cat to the Commander and drew from the dead man's belt a blade blacker than space and curved to confound the eye. He held it upright and then turned it, smooth as a slot in a cogwheel, to horizontal.
There, like a clever wolf, he studied his reflection, and then he turned until his mirrored gaze captured the Princess.
Walking backward, he brought their two faces closer until they stood side by side, the blade before them, and ignoring the gaping audience beyond, their gazes locked.
The Reaper dropped the Edge of Space into Caty's hand, and dropped also his divinity. Izzy collapsed at her feet. Like a juggler she flipped the small bloody knife to her offhand and the great clean knife to her dominant hand, and it fuzzed and crackled electric blue.
Every Thanan bowed before her, except the Captain, who took a hesitant step and puzzled at this persona.
"My beloved," she said, "you've changed."
The girl cocked her head. "Who are you?"
"She has jetissoned her burden of memory," said the Blip.
The girl jerked her chin and scanned the awestruck faces of the Thanans. "Is space always this fun?"
The hall shook with a hammerblow and the Bonedrake's hull screamed. The Blip said, "This spectacle has been seen by the fleet. They are now at war among themselves, and we are the prize. In a minute, centurions will board us through the hullbreach."
The Progs and officers looked at each other like frightened children.
The Blip continued, "By law, I have no military authority."
A sergeant, a wedge-shaped man whose narrow stance broadened to bulking shoulders and a boyish bouldery head, stepped forward. "My razor-wire queen, I flew ten years in the dead chains before embracing Thanas. I've seen battle and I know this ship."
The Captain raised her voice. "Isot Stone, I cede you full command, to keep or lose."
Someone shouted, "Let the Battlewitch lead us."
"The Battlewitch," Isot Stone crooned, "leads us already, the tip of a blade whose bucking handle I will ride like a feral destrier, keeping her deadly focus near enough to straight that we are cut by nothing but her bluesteel eyes."
"You're weird," Caty said, and grinned. "So I can cut them?"
"This is Thanas!" he roared. "May the savepods of our enemies quake with the shameful retreat of their soul-lenses."
On the twilit gurney lay a comatose hag, bones brittle and skin cavernous with the passage of her prana to the primebody.
Looking down past the fleshy shell, Foxle Spindrift nudged the sloths with a stick. "Dripfeed her fifty milliwigs of Amnesie and bury her deep in Hexprism Seven."
The nurse, a dark spindly tower of a woman, watched her go while Foxle turned to the newer gurney, the girl's bones now glowing like filaments through flesh that firmed and sweetened before his eyes.
"We did it! We did it! We did it!" He hopped and shook his fists with glee.
"What about the other?"
"Why do you care about her? This is the one you knew, the one who loves you, the one you did everything for."
"The other," she said, "did everything for me, and for you."
"Stop looking to the past!"
"Are you so certain she has no future? Did you write her off from the start?"
"Go and help her then. This one doesn't need you."
The nurse followed the gurney, while the doctor leaned hungrily and awaited the awakening of the Princess. And when it came, more hungry still were the pools of her eyes.
Two fathoms deep in swampwater and muck, Zuki plunged head-down with airless lungs and reached toward the earthplane's energy with a glob of dried treesap. Her closed eyes viewed the currents and aimed the piney sphere, and this time she caught the nose of some story looking for the sky, and felt the kiss of the aquifer.
Swimming like a dolphin, she broke the surface and breathed. Beside her floated the skiff, now stuffed with rushes making a mattress for three face-up bodies, all caked with pondscum except nose-vents that passed the gentlest breathing.
Looking behind her, she saw that the reborn spring was but a trickle. Into Levi's green-smeared ear she said, "I can't get down there, but I can see down."
With a powerful backstroke, she pulled the raft over the spring. "Hold on," she said, "I've got you."
A pastel plain of windblown bedsheets billowed to a river of sawblade waves scissored from corrugated paper and painted chalky blue.
Just above these, swaying like a boat, hung a porcelain teacup on a string, bearing three travelers.
"Where's Zuki?" Levi said.
Dusty looked up. "She was coming right after me."
Brillix said. "Would she betray you?"
"Then she got lost."
"But she's three ethertech levels above us."
The more you see, the more you know
The more you know, the more your fate
Must shrink to fit the greater show
Or wander after wicked bait
Brillix looked down, and the gaps between the waves repelled her eyes, as if her mind feared their unfolding. "I don't think we're in the Archaic Eruption anymore."
Dusty said, "What's it usually like?"
"We should be dancing with beasts and feasting on ancestors, not this dainty tweescape."
He looked around. "It's Zuki. This is just like one of her paintings."
Levi fingered the teacup's stringwork, a delicate mesh of micro-macrame shimmerflax, and sniffed it. "This string is her soul."
"This world is her string," said Dusty. "She's trying to pull us out."
Again Brillix looked over the edge. "I sense danger from below."
From the sky fell a black spider that bounced from her head to her hand and scurried over the rim.
Another spider landed on Dusty's nose and jumped to the stringwork.
Levi watched the third spider fall, opened his mouth, and ate it.
He doubled over. "Cesspits of soma! That seemed like a good idea..."
He vomited a stream of black crawlies of diverse sizes and forms. They stuck to the cup and climbed the strings and sank their dark probosces and spun their filthy silk and hummed, in a voice almost human, a dissonant spell:
What you grab is
What you lack
Coach be nimble
In this thimble
You will meet
Tribes so savage
And so clean
That none assemble
But shall dance
Kings will tremble
The vermin shed their shells like grainchaff as their bodies merged and transmuted the carriage. Now the travelers rode in the pronotal shell of some long-dead dungbeetle, carried on the backs of ants through a succulent jungle where sandgrains shone like gems and dewdrops hung like lanterns.
For a moment, in the pawprint of some beast, the canopy opened and all three looked up to their uncanny puppeteer.
Brillix sighed. "The Black Heron. It could be worse."
"Who is she?" Dusty said.
"The granddaughter of the Sun, who traveled to the heart of the swamp and can now never cast off its gloom."
"Is she good or bad?"
"The heron brings from the muck what the clean surface needs."
"That's not who I saw," Levi said. "I saw Zuki in the scrubs of a nurse, and then in the cowl of a ferryman, and then in the leather-patched tentcanvas duds of some deadscroll outlaw."
Brillix said, "Then the Heron has locked our fate. She is flown and Zuki is left to guide us."
Dusty said, "I didn't see a face, not really. I saw a hand, long-fingered with broken nails, dangling a cracked locket with some old picture, sun-bleached and water-bled to a ghost."
Shadrach heeded the clouds. Down pinyon-juniper canyons and over sandy rivulets, following deertrails up slopes of yellow pine and dry grass, across a steppe where basalt columns stood like ruins, he kept his head in the sky.
A cirrocumulus fish urged him downward, and a cirrus uncinus bird said to climb. A puffy flower turned him sunward and an icy finger toward the pole. Faces of popcorn judges cast encouragements and disparagements on his progress.
He walked over rolling hills whose south faces reached back to the bushy slopes of some rainy century, while their north slopes wore plowridges like pinstripes bristling with the best and newest weeds.
In a streambed tacky with mud he found her tracks, the boot-tread he remembered from the desert — but there was a foot landing clumsily, there a toe dragging and stubbing a pebble, a kneeprint, a handprint, a drop of blood.
Not far downstream, by a shaded pool under a feeble drowsing gnatcloud, a dry leafpile rattled like death. She had piled them up to keep warm, but now lay curled and shivering, stripped of her combat suit and wearing a wispy shift, bramble-torn and rust-breasted. Her front teeth were broken and her lips swollen and split. Her scar was missing.
Eyes pink in black pits opened and saw him.
"My Prince," she croaked, "I'm hurt."
She is concerned to know that in the box of the projecting machine is a dazzling presence, a sort of giant fairy, a little larger than a man, an operator, indeed, one she has not hired.
-Vachel Lindsay, The Golden Book of Springfield
Crafton and Perceva, flanked by Perelyx and Nestrak respectively, walked the black sunstone brickwork of the Lidless City avenues, faeward from the sparse palace district, past glassy mansions and spiral-polished metal storefronts. As they angled around the city center, its crystal spikes and canyons rose beside them like a cold sun.
Here and there, tiny aircraft of many shapes drifted eyeward. Crafton stopped to watch.
"Relief fabricators," Nestrak said, "representing every charitable agenda, including some unauthorized by the Utopitron. My own devices are limited to serving a population of eleventy-ten, above which your people, no offense, slide into hierarchy."
"Is it true," Perelyx said, "that in your world, the son of God resists all temptation?"
"Of course." Crafton puzzled. "What else would he do?"
"Ha!" said Nestrak. "I was right. You owe me seven decifavors, which I shall take as a 56 minute foot massage."
Crafton looked back and forth. "Are you two a couple?"
"We're polylustous," Perelyx said. "Not all Scrollkin are, but it's common in the garbage district," she squeezed his hand, "where we're going."
"But your story," Crafton said. "In ours, Jesus goes out in the desert, where Satan tempts him three times."
"In ours as well," Nestrak said, "and all three times does he succumb."
"And always," Perelyx stage-whispered in Crafton's ear, "to greater depravity."
He looked at Perceva, who looked at Perelyx and laughed. "Your people are not sweatdrops on the ass of temptation."
Crafton, across Perceva, asked Nestrak, "Why does your god succumb?"
"Because we're on different moral levels. In our world, to fall into sin is to fall into your world, where to climb out is to resist, eventually. The problem was that your world was becoming too clean, too nice to plumb the depths of moral error necessary for your redemption. That's why we blew it up."
"Every time you explain your motive," said Perceva, "your story changes. Last time it was to change the redemptive paradigm, and permit the release of inmates who understand right action only rationally."
"Yes, because then we could tell them what they're supposed to be doing."
"Wait," said Crafton. "So am I a good person now, or a bad person on the run?"
Perceva took his hand. "You're clean. You all are. Pareidolia threw a level four soulbleach. Still, I can't wait to see you tested."
Before them rose a drapery of white light in tiny gridlines like cheesecloth.
Crafton stopped. "Tested?"
"The Empathomat," said Perceva, "keeps the border between the far and extreme eye, and keeps the balance between the faeward Aestheticon and the eyeward Utopitron."
The lightcurtain cut the street and curved up the floor of the Scroll, to one side through the glittery city center, and on the other through diamond-grid sidestreets to green playfields along the sunslot.
Up there Crafton saw a line-straddling ballgame, its players indifferent to the curtain.
"You see," came a voice, "the innocent do not fear my testing."
Crafton looked for the speaker and saw a pizzapan platform, hovering cat-height on airjets, floating up the street and bearing a seraphic cryptohologram of a cherubic nurse.
He pointed to the players. "How do they know they're innocent? My whole life I kept thinking I was innocent, and finding out later I wasn't."
The Empathomat's avatar pretended to puzzle over Crafton, while the real scanning was done by mothdrones hovering around cranelike streetlamps.
"Are you saying," she said, "that someone completely innocent might still fear their own guilt?"
"Of course, it's the only way. Even just to be a good person, you have to live in fear that you're bad."
The Empathomat's airjets sighed. "You've been a long time in the prisonworld."
"Tell me about it."
"Step into the curtain," she said, "and we'll make you better."
Crafton edged trembling toward the light. Reaching a tentative finger, he touched—
The welcoming membrane flared to cold fire, and the streetlights lanced him with flashing searchbeams, while the mothdrones buzzed a shrill alarm up the quiet streets.
"As I suspected," cried the Empathomat, "the Diabolical Cornerstone!"
"That's impossible," Perceva said. "I know him."
"Then you know that, of all the billions of inmates, your stepdaughter's charm came to him first."
"It had to come to someone first. He had a space antenna."
"You know that he alone was not driven mad by the song, but only into yearning for madness. And you heard it from his own mouth, out in the desert."
"Sometimes," Perceva muttered, "I think I'm the most degenerate person in the universe, and this entire planet is for my rehabilitation."
"You were blind," said the Blip, and Perceva, hearing the truth of the most grievous insult, hung her head.
Crafton, the whole time, sat limp and unsurprised. Perelyx mussed his hair. "Ten thousand years in the washer and you're still dirty."
Nestrak said, "Empathomat, I object to your moral subtext." He turned to Crafton. "What you in the prisonworld call evil, we model as capacitance. A capacitor is two plates that never touch, with a charge poised to jump the gap."
"We have those."
"The circuits of which we speak," said Perceva, "run not on electric potential, but on emptiness and desire, on submission to, and deviance from, the ineffable Divine." She looked in his eyes. "That's what I see in you, and why Pareidolia sang to you first, that you can handle such a charge."
"I feel drained."
"Yes, even at birth you would have been nearly empty. It's about what you can hold — enough to destroy worlds with your discharge, or to anchor the circuits of the Reformatrix."
Bumping the Empathomat from the platform she appeared, a sexy headmistress in a tight striped suit top and cool pink jodhpurs whose riding pads bulged like dangerous thighmuscles.
She held a tinsel-tipped horsewhip and lashed at Crafton playfully. "I need you. And you've earned a reward for your precious suffering: seven lifetimes of obscene power and unchecked indulgence."
"It's a trap!" Perceva said. "She just wants to recharge you so she can use you again."
"Do I have a choice?"
"He's an uncorrected deviant," said the Reformatrix. "His ass is mine."
Nestrak called, "What says the Utopitron?"
The platform resolved a new avatar, a professorish man much like Crafton, with craggy white sideburns and black-framed glasses on a face where wisdom and compassion were handmaidens to brainpower.
"I can't lie," said the Utopitron. "I cut a deal. I support your re-internment, and I get to run some experiments, which I think you'll enjoy, before you go back to your old job."
The Empathomat nudged him off the platform, and his image didn't fade but scattered into something like a mirrored flycloud.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I must agree. The net pleasure-pain ratio is much higher if you're immediately repatriated."
Crafton said, "That sounds like something the Utopitron would say."
The Empathomat's eyes popped and she spun to face the flycloud. "He's right! You creep, you hacked me." In her hand appeared a spark-throwing racket, and she swung it to zap-bat the Utopitron's avatar back to his lonely databanks.
"I ask," Crafton said, "before you send me back, just look at me." He spread his arms. "I'm transparent to you, if not to myself. Look into my deepest heart."
A single flickering fly buzzed the Empathomat's ear and tinily squeaked, "It's a trap!"
She crushed it between her fingers.
"You win, honey." Over Crafton she leaned until her light enveloped him, and mothdrones clustered on his skin like shaggy fur.
The sun went out. The platform clattered to the street and a moment later they heard the unholy clanging of a million Lidless City service drones dropping. The near-darkness was dimly blue with wayward charges and phosphorescence.
From somewhere up the street there came a spastic clattering. Nestrak pulled out a glowstick to illuminate a vehicle whose every part was a unique piece of trash. Even the staples, holding rubber strips to the slashpile wood of the wheelrims, were different metals and sizes. Its rear-mounted engine was a cubic matrix of spiral-coiled rubberband ropes which drove the wheels below with a mess of almost-mismatched gears.
At the front, like an unwieldy hood ornament, perched a tiny phonograph where a metal disc spoke its etchings through a brass horn:
"Mulnae-Makshyn welcomes you, Crafton Veer. Climb aboard."
"Is that the Aestheticon? Did I just kill the Scroll?"
"No and no," Nestrak said. "You merely forced the far-eyeward Blipnet to fail-safe shutdown, and Mulnae-Makshyn is a neighborhood only loosely allied to the Aestheticon, who as usual was too late to be of any help."
The car was a two-seater. Perelyx took Crafton's hand. "I'll drive."
"Go," Perceva said. "I'll meet you there."
The rubber bands unwound and slung the chariot faeward.
In a cave at the boundary between planet and space, seated on spongy fungi and faces upraised to the stardome, two philosophers watched the battle for the crown of death.
"The Scarthanans," said Anaxas, tall and thin as a lightpole, "are the transcendent. By facing their pain, they achieve a higher level of being."
"That's the most core-Glimmer thing I've ever heard," said Budgus, short and thick as a trashcan. "For you, climbing into gravity is taking a holiday, a motivational retreat. Then you go back to the floaty core and think you leveled up. True transcendence means carrying a heavier load forever."
"That's typical surface-Glimmer, metaphorically linking moral superiority to something you were born into. This simgrav we share is my burden and not even your baseline."
"But moral superiority can be inborn, like any other advantage."
Above, in simwindow shrinkzoom, a Thanan railsnake straightened and shot a tungsten bolt into the shank of the carrionbird at the crux of the standoff. With a brief delay, as the surface outpost's feelers resolved the remote vibrations into soundwaves, they heard a mighty thunk.
"Whoa," said Anaxas, "that is a radical idea. If your definition of 'moral' carries any stakes, you're saying there is some kind of absolute metaphysical superiority, that does not have to be earned. You're talking about hacking God."
"Not necessarily. It's not hacking if only God can do it."
Above, from a dreadvermin starship like a twelve-legged ferret, antlike soldiers crossed to plumb the hullbreach.
"If I were God," said Anaxas, "why would I uplevel someone who didn't earn it?"
"You're such a puritan. Why not everyone, immediately?"
From the speakers came the faint sound of shouting and clashing blades.
Anaxas frowned. "I concede your point. The reason for the necessity of struggle is so unknowable, that there may well be exceptions."
Above, voice by voice, there rose a chorus of screams.
When the Princess bit the knife, the time engine dropped like a spider from the dome of the jalopy and hung on its tentacly cable like an asterisk of scepters.
On one side of the underdome splitscreen, between two green beams of their gravprison, the Thanan armada circled the vessel whose inner drama, on the other side, unfolded.
When the Reaper saw his reflection, Torisa said, "Trixie, what level is that blade?"
"Either three or five, it's ambiguous."
"You know why it's important." She turned to Quint and Dez. "If a level five entity sees itself in a level five artifact, talents and attributes are briefly unbound from matter."
"The way he moves," Dez marveled. "It's like if ballet had a purpose."
Quint said, "He's trying to catch her eye."
"Trixie, three or five? Resolve the ambiguity!"
The screen zoomed so close that the black blade's luciferous edge made a horizon, a dark earth under a deep sky floating the foreheads and crosseyed gazes of two gods, now blurring as Trixie filtered the live feed to focus on the artifact.
The horizon dropped, unmasking the full faces of the freed princess and the death-possessed slave, his black eyes going blank.
"Resolved! It's a five!"
The view pulled up and back while Izzy slumped and Caty raised the weapon. "Trixie," Torisa said, "did the blade go five before or after their gazes broke?"
"I'm afraid that ambiguity is absolute."
Behind them, Treblinka spoke. "The artifact's animus did not come through the Reaper. It came through the girl."
"You noticed that," Trixie said. "The knifethrow was a distraction, a bit of stage magic. Before it struck, something passed into her. As a level five myself, I have no idea where it came from. But I know what it was."
"It was her," Blink said, "the other Cataria."
Quint stared at the blade's blue glow. "I've seen that color once before, from the cracked core of an illegal reactor in deep Gridspace. That flare is just the dim edge of a nullspectrum inferno." He looked up in awe. "She could cut hullmetal like cheese."
Torisa looked at him sideways. "Cheese?"
"Me too," Desenova said, and looked up at the time engine, now whirling like a manic model starsystem, its brass globes spin-burning their ball-bearinged axes.
On the splitscreen's space side, the green binding gravcables fritzed and their glow yellowed as the ships that held them wavered in their alliances.
The screen-centering Bonedrake dropped like a rock as their little ship tilted back; and as they began to spin, the ships of the Thanan armada downscrolled like slotmachine icons.
Above, the time engine stilled as the jalopy caught its spin. Trixie said, "We can break out now, but we have to leave the Princess."
As they looked to the splitspreen, the Bonedrake livefeed blanked, and the streaking spaceview stretched full 180. Among the circling craft, one grew larger on each pass, like the stark stone head of a thrown spear.
"Go!" Treblinka said.
"I don't drive," said Trixie. "Blink, Quint, Dimple, go!"
The metallic creature sucked itself into the ceiling and spat itself up from the floor, rumbling the handflight console and again circling the base of the greenglass globe, which glowed gold as the two pilots leapt to grope its curve for some uncanny handle.
Trixie cried, "We're not going to make it!"
Outside, the attack ship closed like a shark and then the dome view opened like a hatch to the well beneath space, an electrostatic blackness where a handful of stars danced like a lazy flycloud. Wherever two touched, the future shocked the past and the stars spat apart, one blue and one red and both fading whiteward.
What Torisa and Desdenova watched in the dome, Quint and Blink saw in the navglobe, and though they moved their fingers over it, the stars were indifferent.
Blink balled her fists. "What the fuck is this interface?"
Trixie said, "Dimple has engaged some unknown mode of timehacking."
Dez scowled. "You named him Dimple?"
"His full name is Roscoe-Ringdimple Machinario 8872."
Quint muttered, "The Roscoe-Ringdimple enginesmithy was assumed mythical."
"He says to tell you you're riding a unicorn."
"But unicorns are real," Torisa said. "As a child I rode an impulsive unipony named Bartholomew."
"Dimple claims greater age than that equine genus. I can't tell if he's joking."
Blink said, "Dimple, what is this timehack?"
In the globe and on the screen, the frolicking stars sped, buzzing, humming, keening like the electron cloud of a reactive ion.
The lights went out.
On the splitscreen's space side, the green binding gravcables fritzed and their glow yellowed as the
"Muck of the Fae!" Blink cried. "We're in a timeloop."
The screen-centering Bonedrake dropped.
"Thirty-three seconds," Trixie said.
Torisa looked around. "Are we all in?"
Quint and Blink scrambled to the navglobe whose pedestal already rumbled with Dimple's passage.
Dez said, "All in what?"
"Oh dear," Torisa said. "You don't remember this happening before?"
Ships of the Thanan armada downscrolled like slotmachine icons.
"Whoa," Dez said. "Deja vu."
On the navglobe, Blink held Quint's hand around the curve. "One finger," she said, and synced it with a finger on her own hand, both circling Dimple's rising glow.
The attack ship closed like a shark, and Trixie screamed like a teen on a themepark railride.
Desdenova found herself floating in space. As trained, she opened her mouth and braced for the hammer-pull of the vacuum, but it never came. Spinning, she met the nose of the Thanan barracuda and passed through its hull like a ghost. Somewhere in its belly she met the eyes of a shocked crewman.
Isot Stone followed the screaming. At his feet lay the moaning torsos of the invaders, and he paused here and there to give his enemies the mercy of tempdeath.
Bloody bootprints led to a storeroom where the wounded had fled the maiden, and there she was, leaning over the loudest screamer, her face a mask of blood with two white lines down her cheeks — not scars but tearstreaks.
They were tears of joy.
"The pain," she gasped. "It's so beautiful."
Isot cut the man's throat. "Bad girl."
Through a susurrus of rust-streaked grassstalks, a snuffly buffalo galumphed. Lashed to its shaggy haunches with musky bungeecables, a squishy yoke towed a pumpkin-colored buggy.
Up front, goat-footed Levi Ripp sat on a rubbery bikeseat and drove the beast with song: hum-a-hum, hum-a-whee. He pulled that hypnotic movement to resolution, and the (technically) bison rested.
"Whoa," said Levi to his passengers. "This land is pasted in strips." He gestured to both sides, where the carriage stood on a clean line between green grass and brown dirt.
Dusty stood on horse hooves and looked to the forward horizon, where a forest edge ran as clean as the grassline, but angled closer on the left and away on the right. He said, "That treeline is too green to be real."
"If this world were fully physical," said Levi, "distant vistas would be blue-misted by lightscatter."
Brillix sprang down on cat legs and examined the boundary for tracks and seedlings. She said, "This line is transparently symbolic. The ecology is not animals and plants, but heroes and stories, not sun and water but joy and balance."
Levi said, "We must be on the Gameboard."
Dusty said, "Is that what Zuki calls the Plane of Worlds?"
"Not quite. Those worlds are scraps of planetary surfaces, scattered in space and time, merged by the weaving of their stories. To be on that surface is to be in physical space, only with your story focused in the lens of ether. This is its own world, mirroring the Worldplane in simpler brushstrokes."
Brillix dug in the grass. "It is said that the Swamp Mother wastes nothing, that every molecule of muck is a holy artifact in some unseen epic. But here it's obvious. Everything on the Gameboard is a clean signifier, linked to some other clean thing here, or some dirty thing on the Plane of Worlds. Look."
She picked up a finger-sized critter and held it by its neck while its sticklike body squirmed and bent into a sequence of runes.
"I know that language," Levi said. "It says turn on the radio."
On Shadrach's back she rode hunched like a crumpled scrap of paper. From a sidepocket millifab he drew a glob of sim-pemmican and held it over his shoulder where she paused her lolling head and hungrily licked.
He said, "It mocks the densest food of this landscape's indigenes. I'd guess rendered deerfat and mortar-pounded berries."
She tongued the paste to her dry mouthroof and rasped, "Desaturate the fat, and add salt."
"I can't. The foodfab module is only level one, optimized for survival. I can get you salt from the chemfab, but that food is fixed, until we switch landscapes."
"Then get me to the ocean."
"I'm not sure if this world even has oceans. Its geography is patched from landscapes known to inmates."
"Some of them lived on shores."
"But none lived on open ocean, which is necessary for shore ecology. Wait."
He stopped and pointed to a tall bush with compound leaves and pendulous clusters of powder-blue berries. "Sambucus caerulea."
Cataria remembered the last time she had finger-raked bushfood, sour-sweet seagrapes on the delta, leaving home. Now her shaky hand grasped at a bunch and whiffed.
"Are your eyes okay?" Shadrach set her down.
"No." She curled fetal and shuddered. "I feel like the clumsy puppetter of my own body. I see colors and edges, but even just resolving blurry shapes is a chore."
"I've never heard you call anything a chore."
He broke the stem and held the fruit to her mouth, and she devoured the insipid drupes.
"What happened to you in there?"
"I don't remember. There was someone in trouble, and a warning. A song." She clutched her gut. "Is this how humans feel all the time?"
"You'll get used to it."
"What are you, now?"
"I regained Scrollkin anatomy in the apocalypse of the Lonely Planet, and did not lose it coming back here." He shook his head. "You should not have changed. The Hypnongromie does not transmogrify."
"I went somewhere else."
"I saw it, before I lost you. A xenon trolley to the realm of the gods."
She convulsed in sobs which squeezed no tears. "I lost me too."
While her body floated trancebound in the tripsie glade, Zuki's eye followed the feeble spring's etherline downward, that silver thread now spliced to a black thread which led through the bedrock of the Worldplane to a world more stark and glowing.
The Gameboard is said to reflect our world like a mirror, to underlie it like architecture, to overlay it like the smoke of our desires; but ethertechs know that it does more.
The Gameboard interprets the Worldplane, its lines both simplified and warped, its people and places swelled or shrunk to match the head-filter of the ethertech in question — the same lenses of expectation and desire through which we all view this world of matter. Indeed, the Panetherists believe that we are all etheric travelers, and matter is just what it looks like when too many minds get stuck in the same eye.
Zuki saw a tapestry of high fantasy, an isometric landscape of rumply mountains shaggy with grass, forests of hand-drawn conifers and broadleaves, cracked-clay deserts and lonely snowfields.
To the incomprehensible horizon lay the icons of heroes and treasures unknown, but the hero below her she recognized: it was her boyfriend riding a buffalo. Inzooming, the steed's tail grew to a carriage on which the other two travelers rode, all in their beast-footed avatars, cutting a trail through a nearly realistic grassland.
Rising, she saw them speeding toward a green-brown boundary, and beyond the brown the darker green of woods — but now the tapestry rolled with gentle waves, and its colors ghosted and rainbowed like oilslicks.
And there, like a wave, came the rip.
This time she kept her balance in far outzoom, and watched the changes. Before the wave the landscapes nestled like fruit in a basket, and in its wake they clashed like glass in a madman's stained-glass window.
And it was big. When she zoomed to view the width of the rip, it was as wide as a small planet, and its length teased infinity.
In the skiff her earthbody mumbled, "The Lonely Planet is loose on the Plane of Worlds!"
Walking a ridge between hills and plain, Shadrach kneeled and set Cataria down.
"Do you hear that?"
She shook her head. "The subtle range of my ear is encrusted with tinnitus."
"I hear a far chorus of whirs." Shadrach scanned the sky and spied a stretched procession of black specks. "Faeward saints! We're saved!"
"I don't see it."
"A charitable airlift! A fleet of fabricators from the Frontscroll." He jumped and waved his arms. "I may have to get closer to flag one down."
"Don't leave me."
"I will never leave you, but I may carry you roughly. Hold on."
Perelyx steered the trash-fashioned chariot with one hand, tracing florid arcs to the very edges of the pointed streetcorners and stolid curblines of Lidless City.
Crafton watched the lights come on — first the tips of the tallest buildings, then down to the streets like falling glitter. The colors warmed — blue, white, and the zeppelin tower glowing peach from its scratchglass pillar. Grounded drones squirmed like stunned insects and took flight.
In the first rays of the new sun stood a minor mouth of the garbage district, an arch of double-scale whalebones from some art exhibit whose beauty had failed to justify its size.
Its gates were great welded grilles of brassbed headboards. One stood ajar outward, blocked from opening wider by a diamond boundary fencepost of the city proper. The other stood ajar inward, blocked by a pile of broken porcelain so established that seven species of grass bore seeds through its cracks.
Perelyx angled the unwinding chariot to ram the gap. "We call this the Eye of the Needle."
"I don't have any money."
"Don't worry, we'll give you some. We use low-grade antique coins of unfixed values that move with asethetic trends. You can prowl our markets and purchase the finest gleanings."
"I was making a joke. We have a saying, it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven."
The slowing car nudged the gap and stalled. Three of its tires feebly pushed and one spun in a puddle of citrusy oil. Perelyx swung her knees over the front. "Sorry, I wasn't listening. Let's walk."
Crafton scrambled after, across a field of glass-fragments so timeworn that their upward edges had flattened to the lumpy tiles of a watery mosaic.
"Is someone chasing us?"
"Only the wardrones of the Utopitron."
"That sounds bad."
"He hates to send them in here, because to too many defect to our undignified culture. Eventually the Utopitron himself will join us."
The glassfield verged on a wall of yachts and trawlers, all buried to their waterlines and stacked with gilded trolleycars and pompous travelwagons, the whole edifice entwined and cracked by wiry vines bearing candystriped trumpet flowers.
"That ivy-bindweed hybrid," Perelyx boasted, "girds our city."
A friend waved to her from an open window and she didn't notice, but led Crafton ducking into a corrugated drainpipe between two boats.
"Everything in Mulnae-Makshyn," Perelyx said, "is made of objects and materials unwanted by the eyeward Scroll."
"So if the Utopitron comes over to your side, and your whole civilization is made of trash, then who makes the trash?"
"Simconsumers! An artificial upper class who perform the function of getting what they desire, and throwing it away, without any of the suffering."
They emerged from the tunnel into the full light of the reborn sunslot.
At the gates of Mulnae-Makshyn the Reformatrix raged, her platterlike holofoil bumping the brass gates and the backwheels of the stuck chariot. Upcogged squirrels pelted her with hazelnuts and lugnuts, blurring and dinging her image and platform, respectively.
"Bring me the Diabolical Cornerstone," she shouted. "He's mine!"
Around a corner came Wyzzyx Perceva, banking on rollerwheels which now withdrew into her bootheels, leaving her in a fighting stance before the Reformatrix. "He was never yours."
"Sister," said the scornful avatar, "you're not even second place. I saw him swooning over your slutty friend."
"You think you just need him," Perceva said, "a figure in your practical equation. But you're in love with him, you always were, and he never even liked you."
"You didn't even recognize him," the Reformatrix cried, "when you held him in your arms!"
Her platter tilted to deftly deflect a squirrel-flung lugnut at Perceva's face.
"I'm sorry. I was memlocked."
"Are you still?"
"What do you mean?"
Nestrak jogged up, huffing. "What has she told you?"
Perceva grabbed his hair and bent his head back. "Little brother, what have you not told me?" She forced him to his knees. "Why was I not fully recogged at extraction?"
Nestrak cringed. "You were getting along so well with him, it was awkward. We knew the Empathomat would eventually have to tell you."
"I want you to tell me, now." She slid his neck into a headlock and clutched at his belly. "I'll tickle you."
"Stop!" Nestrak squirmed and clucked like a chicken and grasped at her spidery fingers. "Okay, I'll tell you."
Desperately he sputtered, "Your lover is to be the engine of your daughter's starship."
"Impossible. My daughter is in the Backscroll."
"I don't think she even knows. It's all being orchestrated by Paracelsus Meerschaum and his fae-mad grandfather."
"Don't stop me." She poked a finger at her brother's eye, picked up the platter of the Reformatrix, and bounded over the stuck chariot and into the filthy subcity.
Perelyx and Crafton exited the draintunnel at the armpit of a starfish fiveway, a widening of alleyways that wandered off like canyons in bluffs of sculpted junkyard.
There they met her tribe. All Scrollkin are in some way elfin, but where other far-eyewards are prim and birdlike, the trashfolk are scruffily mammalian. They pretended badly to go about their business while shyly marveling at their champion and her prize, their eyes curious over bushy beards and through braided forelocks.
One stepped up, round-faced and lazily earnest. "Dr. Veer, how long are you staying?"
"I don't know," Crafton said, and looked around. "As long as you'll have me."
"Good answer." He turned to Perelyx. "Where are you taking him first?"
"To my subtribe, in Shoe'n'rags."
"Ah, the textile district. Visitors love it. On the way, if you're hungry, the fruit district has a fresh shipment of barely overripe mangoes."
"Our guest can't live on fruit."
The greeter blushed. "I'm sorry, I forgot. I'll work something out with the petshelter."
Crafton said, "Don't kill anything just for me."
The greeter laughed awkwardly, then saw that the guest was serious. "Whoa," he said, "prisonworld cultureshock. No, we would never do that, but when animals die naturally, normally they're converted to maggots for birdfeeding or flybreeding. The petkeepers will be honored to feed a human."
On the way up to Shoe'n'rags, in an alley between biplane wings stacked like cardhouses and shippingbins piled like fruit, Perelyx and Crafton met a streetpreacher. Barefooted and bobbleheaded, he approached them and said, "Ask me anything."
Glibly Crafton replied, "What is the meaning of life?"
"Each of us has our own meaning," said the preacher. He fell into a trance before Crafton, and began to nasally hum and mumble a tune, as if he were singing so loud in his head that his lips couldn't hold it:
Your story begins with your father and mother
Who loved you so much that they hated each other
They tied such a knot in you, none can untie it
Until every string of your symphony's quiet
"Wow," Crafton said, "this guy's good. On Earth that took me years of therapy."
"Brother Dreadmuppet is okay," Perelyx said, "as streetpreachers go. That was Doublecouplet Twelve from the standard diagnostic hymnal. I would have gone with Dekaditty Six." She belted:
It's not my fault, said the toes to the knees
The knees unbuckled and blamed the core
Which shot forth such an awesome sneeze
That the highest head could not ignore
Its own dark part in this disease
It's not my fault, said the head to the heart
Which turned around and blamed the ass
Which shot forth such an awful fart
That it blew the King from his tower of glass
Now he works at the Economart
Crafton laughed, and Brother Dreadmuppet bowed. "My dutchess, your judgment is wise. His story is better played as a comedy."
Walking away up the alley, Crafton said, "He never told me the meaning of life."
"Were you even listening?"
Perceva carried the holoplatter of the Reformatrix like a shield, through the draintunnel and across the fiveway plaza, knocking aside the few trashfolk who accidentally got in her way.
On the way up to Shoe'n'rags she passed a streetpreacher, who sang after her:
You see through lies
You do what's right
But dark the night
Behind your eyes
Over Glimmer 7-26, a planet so massive that its rocky surface was cave-drained of air and showed only the dim sparks of negative simgrav outposts, the wreckage of the Thanan armada ate itself.
Crippled carrionbirds showed their guts to space in great rips torn by railguns. The worst-off ships were being eaten by fat black wormdrones, who munched hullmetal and tail-flung lumpy pellets to mag-routers, silvery fish who bent their bodies saddle-wise to bend the arcs of the hullmetal nuggets and sling them toward more spaceworthy wrecks. There man-sized spiders caught the bullets with their forelegs and placed them with their back legs, rebuilding bulkheads and hulls with stitches so smooth that the crew would see only shiny lines on walls and ceilings.
At the center, the Paisley Bonedrake was already changing its colors. As the last patchdrones polished its tail, paintdrones wiped the sparkly bones from its breast, and drew starbright slashes like rips in the fabric of space.
Inside the ship, in the half-dome apse of the cathedral, that scene played on a wide vidscreen for the Scarthanan Queen. Still in her frilly slippers, Kunigunda lounged knees-up in a black leather loveseat, holding the hand of Prince Isandro Otranto, now haggard and grim and fidgeting with the edges of his chest bandage. On the other side of the Queen stood Isot Stone, his pants spattered with the blood of his foes, holding the hand of Princess Caty, blood-splattered head to toe.
She pulled her hand away.
At her feet was a half-finished sketch, drawn with bold Na-il markers on Thanan manskin vellum. On a black field lay a squiggle of gold, and Caty sat and drew it out into a golden lasso that twisted like a bulging corkscrew, all around a shinier black, a sharp-pointed shape, a starship.
"It's beautiful," said the Queen. "But what do you think of our own ship?"
Caty watched the spacepainters brighten the rips. "It looks like a tiger scratched the night."
"It needs a new name," said the Queen. "I shall call it the Starlight Catscratch."
"Scarlight," said Izzy.
Kuni laughed. "Of course."
The girl now hummed an eerie whine, which broke into keens like seagulls on a time-lost island.
The Queen saw in Caty the untouchable soul of a past lover, while Isot Stone thought he saw that touch in his future, and Izzy alone knew himself unworthy; but all three doted on the deadly Princess, and listened.
"It's lovely," said the Queen. "Did you make it up?"
"I hear it," said Caty, "when I see the ship." Her eyes sparkled. "Let's go there."
"But how can we ever find it?"
"I know that song," said Isot. "It's the basewave of the dreamiest warpbeacon in the dead chains, Radio Wishy."
The Queen said, "How deep in the dead chains?"
"The route," said the Blip, "is the Glimmer line ten peaks primeward to the Exchain concourse, then the Exchain mainline to the subline at 5-5..."
Caty said, "What's a subline?"
"The Exchain mainline has no planets, only warptube concourses to—"
Isot Stone cut in. "Our chainglobe is the brain of a great bird, whose wings ride the wind beyond space. Its neural net is a nest of strings, and when a string goes too long unplucked, it falls to the spacebird's tail. That tail's spine is the deadchain mainline, the quills of its feathers are sublines, and the barbs and barbules are the old strings now plucked by coarser fingers."
The Blip continued, "In the twice-dead subline at 5-5, the quill if you will, we go to the far tip, and take thrice-dead Zed to ex-Suskiksus, whose node at 6-7 reflects a planet whose starsystem also hosts Radio Wishy."
Caty's eyes spun with wonder. "How long will it take us?"
"Seven days at least, nine without human pilots."
"But it's a warpbeacon," she said. "Can't we warp?"
"This ship cannot, but our fleet contains a Moonbat-class messenger ship, which could make the journey in less than a day, with skilled pilots."
Caty clapped her hands.
"Captain," said the Blip, "as our sole batwarp-worthy craft, the Squeak has missions more urgent than this whimsical quest."
Kuni saw Caty's crestfallen face and considered.
The Blip said, "Also, I've been asked to tell you, you're not going anywhere."
The Queen stood. "By whose authority?"
The cathedral's great doors burst inward, and there stood a man both dignified and gravelly, forward-leaning like an iron fencepost, sooty steel hair over a face like a friendly dog turned watchful.
His uniform was the cape of some efficient hillclan, clean grey lines and coal-black buttons, with trim as fine and red as the pinks of his eyes.
He was trailed by two similarly-dressed assistants and three red-kilted spacecop troopers, and that wedge crossed the floor and cracked the apse.
The cop said to the Queen, "Are you the highest authority on this flagship?"
"Yes. Who are you?"
"You are detained in an investigation of a deadly assault on a police cutter, the possible true-murder of its Scrollkin timepilot, and you should know, that ship's regular crew included my daughter."
He held out his hand. "I'm Captain Dougald Toke."
"Thththththth," buzzed the radio, a shoe-sized box of iridescent plastic stuck to Levi's seatpost. He tweaked the dial and a deep voice throbbed: "Worlds!"
"It's Zuki," Levi said. "Her pitch is timestretched."
They gathered to listen, even the bison turning curiously.
Music rose like giants bowing firtree violas, then sped into a cheerful trilly drone. Zuki's voice, up-pitching to merely husky, sang:
This fold of Gameboard girds a world too grand
And shattered to be planet-bound or old.
An infant on a treestump, she will stand
And shake these Earths with tremors unforetold!
That time-diverse reformat'ry was pinned
To Elfland's eye-end like a filthy rag.
Now do the story-threads of all who've sinned
From Avalon to Hypnongromie drag.
Now do the players banished from this glade
(our Gameboard and the matter worlds it mates)
Come creeping through our pixellated shade
And poking heads through long-forgotten gates.
Dusty said, "Zuki, can you just talk?"
"She can't hear you," Levi said. "It's a one-way radio."
"Her verse," said Brillix, "reminds me of modswallow birdsong, birds so upcogged that they sing manifestos and symphonies, and yet we hear only frillier chirps."
"I understood her meaning," said Levi. "But the Ether-Gameboard membrane must be a style filter that passes only songs."
Dusty said, "Can she see us?" He waved his arms, but the radio was already downpitching, and now the sound faded to a steady click like a slow-creaking doorhinge.
Brillix looked carefully at the bison. "She drives us with song, Levi, as you drive the beast. Is he then a player in some deeper world?"
"It seems likely. He calls himself Crudthunder."
The Prince stood on the crown of a bald butte whose furry shoulders fell in three broad wedges to a trio of lands: hills, plains, and woods.
The fabdrone approached from the southeast, a sphere section like a black beetle hanging from a blacker gasbag, whose sun-sucking skin rippled with the warm backdraft of three flappy propellers.
"Anchor here," Shadrach called, "And I shall build of your bounty a castle."
"I should advise you," said the fabdrone, "that there is an arguably better anchorpoint only three leagues down the wood-plain line, where a lake throws a beachline northward."
"Yes," Cataria said, "Let's go there." She sat in the withered grass and tried to see the water.
Shadrach turned and surveyed his lands, the dustblown hills, the lemony plain whose trees spread their tops like clouds, and the forest whose damp floor glistened under chestnut and hickory.
He crouched beside her and pointed where she looked. "When you're ready, we can go down there, and up the beach to the sea. But these fabricators only anchor once. There we must stay, and this is our strongest position."
"And most visible."
"We are royal Scrollkin! Who but us of anyone should be strong and visible?"
"Tell me," she said to the fab, "what's good about the low place."
"It verges on four ecologies, counting both lake and beach, is milder in climate, and richer in the fruits of the earth."
"Tell her," Shadrach said, "the advantage of this place."
"Its altitude gives it both a military and administrative advantage over the lowlands."
"And whichever spot we don't use, someone else will take one of your swarm and use it."
The drone wobbled testily. "Our swarm is not for the taking. We are diverse and benevolent invaders, each with our own standards and motives."
"So," Shadrach said, "if we go down there, someone here might rule us. But if we stay here, we rule both."
"I don't want to rule," she said. "I just feel like I need to be in the low place."
"Feel," he scoffed. "You told me you lost your intuition in the accident, that you could no longer distinguish subrational knowing from groundless fear."
"It must be like my eyes and ears, where I can only sense the most obvious signal."
"Then why don't I sense it? This is perfect." Again he spun on the summit. "I shall call them the Windripple Hills, the Hootenanny Savanna, and the Forest of Luminous Gloom."
"Please," she said. "Please."
"No. This one time, I'm not going to give you what you want."
Shadrach turned to the sky and cried, "Noble fabdrone, anchor here!"
It was already drifting away.
"What?" he bellowed. "I'm a Prince of the Barnacle Monolith Palace protecting the wounded Princess!"
With a sigh the drone flung a medkit, a white cube on a white parachute like its own clean seed, then it caught an updraft, the black balloon and beetle shrinking to a dot in search of some more palatable Backscroll ally.
The tinker's cart bore the words, hand-painted in faded showy letters:
I will take your magic junk
And make it spark from earth to sky
No mojo potion is too stunk
No wizard's staff too high
He pulled the cart himself on a springy yoke that dampened and smoothed its motion, bouncing on mountainbike wheels over footrimples and grasstussocks.
The cartbed was cork-floored and held the tinker's toolchest and three broken items: a sword with blade torched to slag by dragonsbreath, a blown scrunchbag whose black inner lining spread distended and torn, and a spellrod whose gems were dull and cracked — save one, an overpolished lump of amber from which a dim light strobed to jazz the air.
"Halt," it said. "The wingèd eye doth reconnoiter."
"Your language is so flippity," said the tinker, whose name was Dugworth. "You must be on the Gameboard."
The rod only hummed incoherently, so Dug sat and looked at the ocean. Behind him the land firmed and rose to peaks; before him it squirmed and jellied to faewater.
Down from the highlands came high roads, raised on this uncanny island by the brush of attention, rather than lowered by the brush of feet. Like the roots of a treetrunk, these roads diverged into trails and paths, all humped up from the grassy soil as it sank to merge with the undefined.
Dug followed with his eye the footrimple he sat astride. Its clayey ridge forked and forked again, and then it was only his own attention that kept the path dry while the others drowned. He ran his gaze down one path, and then another, out into the water, and thus caressed the trailing hair of Avalon.
On the splitscreen's space side, the green binding gravcables fritzed, and Dez found herself floating in dreamspace. She was falling and Torisa was reaching to catch her, missing, leaping to catch her badly, dancing to grab her shirtcollar and their two bodies twirled like halves of a spindle.
Dimple surged up the navglobe and Blink and Quint were already there, fingers poised like traps for cottony puffs which Quint stretched to threads and pulled to a cats-cradle landscape, while Blink condensed the cloudy light to snowflakes and zoomed.
One snowflake expanded into a spiky chainglobe, and one of its spurs exploded into a symbolic starsystem like a dream-warped dartboard, whose rings and lines were not celestial bodies but agents of story. At the bullseye pulsed a sharp and bloody sun, but Blink zoomed on the most prominent planet, their own ship.
With a fingertwitch the time elf turned their vessel inside out, into a bristleball not unlike the original chainglobe, but whose highest spikes were crew. She resolved Torisa's face.
"She's awake!" Torisa said, and Dez looked past her to the spinning bridge which stilled with the end of the dance.
"Desdenova," Trixie said, "we need your help to break the timeloop. The only no-paradox exit is at Radio Wishy."
Torisa explained with her hands. "To find the exit, we have to see it from two angles. We've got one angle from Dimple's paradox-dodging algorithm, and we need you to locate the other on the level of sonic aesthetics."
Back in the ceiling, Dimple dropped a tendril whose tip swelled to a crested bronze helmet already leaking the junglebird cacophony of a thousand warpbeacons.
"I've got this." Dez lowered the helmet over her ears. "It figures you dweebs would tune into Radio Wishy."
"Little Zuki was raised in a cave by her ma's kin," said Captain Toke, "and they didn't do a half bad job of it. Now she's an ethertech with the Glamstripe Clan, and when I saw she was first responder from the tubecrack, I thought I'd come out for a visit."
He and Queen-Captain Angst sat sipping whiskey in an alcove of the Scarlight Catscratch Cathedral.
"It turns out she's run off to that jungle festival with some Devonian vagabond, and it's a good thing, because I caught up with her ship to find it ripped open like a cheap ration can, by your fleet."
"That attack was made by the faction that we defeated in battle."
"Then I need to know two things. Who gave the order for the attack. And where is my daughter's crewmate?"
"Blip," said the Queen, "I authorize full archive transparency."
"The order was given by Commander Arno Fibula, since tempdead in battle, and now podlocked on the Checkerboard Buzzard. Treblinka Von Zerelli survived the attack, having already boarded a jalopy registered in the Aqua chain as Knife of the Squall. That craft vanished."
Captain Toke looked up. "Vanished how?"
"I'm not qualified to answer that."
"Then answer as far as you are qualified."
"It disappeared from all feelers, but without the transpolaric signature of a batwarp exit."
"My crew will need to look at what transpolaric signature it did have, and we'll stay in this orbit until the Knife syncs Consensus and we know where it is."
"Captain Angst," said the Blip, "and Captain Toke may also want to know: the fleetkeeper reports that the Moonbat Squeak has been stolen."
Aristan rhetoriticians squabble over deadchain nomenclature, with some lumping them all as fallen, and others splitting them into fallen and risen. Surely some deadchains are heavenly, like Altrana 3-2, where monks in porcelain temples meditate on the Flow and feed from experimental spaceguts, or Barundum 5-9, where upteched indigenes forage and hunt on a planet that grows ever more fertile.
Harder to classify is Suskiksus 6-7.
The star was yet young — only the civilization was old. Its habitable planet was a viney haunt of ruins over ruins, its people gone half-wild from the human high-line, now wandering its lands in their incomprehensible games, or gathering in festivals whose songs rose and cracked like the cackles of elderly sirens.
Far out at the system's edge, a tiny satellite interpreted the music of its spheres into a spooky warpbeacon called Radio Wishy.
In between, every Lagrange point was a neighborhood of spacegardens: satellites like o-rings and wheelrims, pocked melons and chambered poppyheads, chrome barbells and black umbrellae, all speckled and ringed with truewindows flashing their undergarments, pendulant broadleaves and spiky grasses, fruiting cacti and downy ferns, thorny brambles and coral caves.
At the starsystem's loneliest L3, opposite the sun from a remote gas giant, lay a spacetown long abandoned by humans. Its terraria and aquaria no longer shared their seed, but turned their fecundity inward, drinking cold sunlight and burrowing each to its own peculiar wildness.
Among them was a slightly stretched spheroid like a great egg, a thousand paces around her waist, her truewindows scattered in symmetric pairs like murky cateyes.
On her dark flank, a craft like a blackbird hovered and docked.
Love (having found) wound up such pretty toys
as themselves could not know:
the earth tinily whirls;
while daisies grow
In etherspace over the Scroll-Backscroll boundary, Zuki tracked a backlogged parade, a flotilla of airboats squeezed to a trickle by the nipple of timescrunch. Some were like dandelion seeds, spiney gourds anchoring snowflake parachutes. Some were like beetles under black balloons. Self-spinning mapleseeds helicoptered among foily albatrosses over livestock-sized clockworks wobbling on countergrav.
From a black beetle she felt some pull of fascination, and zoomed — but there, beyond it, that seed!
In the world of matter, photorealism is the default, and only mystics might see a world of metaphor and story. In etherspace it's the opposite: the eye of physics walks a tightrope. That floating seed's sunblazed umbrella twirled to catch her eye, and its prickles hooked her mind and pulled her down.
Her eye fell into its heart, a pocketwatch machinarium whose tiny cogs and bevels swelled to great apartment blocks, whose chitinous walls were dense with balconies on which insect-headed citizens frolicked.
Her boatbody rocked and giggled.
Outzooming, she stared down its vector and marked a spot, and then (a level three move) split her eye. While one pinprick of attention held that center, the weight of her mind backzoomed until she caught the black thread of her uncanny ally, and tugged it to flip the view.
Back on the Gameboard, she inzoomed to the pinpoint, which now marked a convergence of landscapes: forest and plain below, and above, a remote fingertip of the northern ocean, limned on the east by beach.
Southward she sought her crew.
Camped in a copse on the butte's north slope, under a foily tent extruded from his pocketfab, and lit by its dimming luciferin flashlight, Shadrach fumed.
"My intentions were completely benevolent."
"It's not enough to be a nice guy. You have to make her fall in love with you." She tinkered with the medkit, a tomato-sized cube whose six white faces centered six red crosses, each turning on a tiny axle.
"I am a Prince of the Scroll."
"And yet you could not even seduce a machine of the Scroll. Why do you think that is?"
Shadrach laughed. "Your meanness has returned. Your happiness cannot be far behind."
"Did you notice? This medkit lid is a puzzle."
"My millifab has a nanodisruptor. We could cut it open, but I've drained the battery making this campsite."
"I can solve it. I'm just wondering why they made it so hard. The animals here must be clever."
"Let me see." He turned it over, touched it three times, and popped the lid. "It's easy. You just follow the instructions."
"There are instructions?" She put her head in her hands. "My injuries are deep and subtle."
"Not really. It's only a torn attentyx."
"I forget what that is."
"Your memory loss is merely a concussion."
"A torn attentyx is worse than a concussion?"
"Well, it's more arcane and refined. The attentyx is the habit of what your eyes tell your mind. If your tear were close to the eye, you would not even see shapes, just a mad tapestry of colors and edges. Painters pay dearly for eyeward attentotomies, and making them affordable is an ongoing cause of the Aesthetic Levellers. But your attentyx tear is mindward, blinding you to symbolic language."
He came around beside her and began to write in the dust: C A T
"Can you read your name?"
"I see a curved blade, a rocketship, and a gallows."
Shadrach paused and looked at her sideways. He kept writing: A R I A
"Another rocketship, a half-set sun casting a single ray, a line that divides, and one final rocketship."
He wrote his own name: SHADRACH
"A snake," she said, "and a throne. A broken ladder, a planet split in half, that same sunset beam, a snow-capped peak, the curved blade, and at the end, the throne."
He felt a tingle run up his scalp. "Did you notice that these three characters are the same?"
For the first time since her injury, Cataria laughed. "They are! But it's not so strange. A rocketship, a ladder, and a mountain, are all reaching for heaven."
Excitedly, Shadrach threw off the tent. Above, in the unstable interface between Backscroll and space, stars merged and divided like kaleidoscope glitter and swirled and drifted like tidepool flotsam.
"The sky," he said. "Can you read it?"
She frowned and clutched her gut. "It's too hard. Hey, does that medkit have any psychedelics?"
Shadrach looked through the little box. It held only three items, and he withdrew the first, a clear gelcap packed with off-white powder. "This must be gut flora."
Cataria squeezed it down her dry throat, and Shadrach withdrew the second item. It was sized and shaped like a grouse egg and trippily painted, with a glassy nozzle at the narrow end, and at the wide end, a kevlar pullcord tied to a ring.
"A string-pull vaporfab," said Shadrach, and passed it to Cataria, who yanked the string and sniffed at the little cloud that puffed from the nozzle.
He withdrew the third item, a monocle.
Cataria squeezed the lens between the eyebrow and cheek of her scar-stripped eye, and it warped to bring the world into focus. She pulled the cord again, sucked the vapor deep, and lay back in the prickly grass, looking to the stars while Shadrach tucked the tentfoil around her shivering body.
Dusty dozed on the pumpkin buggy's puffy bench, while Brillix leaned on a big wheelrim chewing a grassstem, and Levi hummed a lullaby to the beast.
There came a rumbling. The distant treeline kicked like a horse and threw a ripple across the dirtplane. The seabird stood, the cat turned her head, and the hyena quieted.
In the wake of that fast wave, the landscape was transformed, the far trees no longer rounded and cartoonish, but pointy and avant-garde, the plain ahead no longer symbolic dirt, but realistic custard, a sticky savanna whose treeclusters were toasted threads of saffron.
Around the travelers, the grass became fan-blown crepe paper strips, and the wave had passed, unfelt, and they felt themselves unchanged.
The radio crackled.
Dusty raised his arms and looked to the sky, and Zuki blasted a kazoo duet, each pitch rising and falling with his two hands. When he understood the interface, he dropped one hand and used the other to grope for a riff from a pop song.
Levi scowled and raised both his hands like a conductor commanding a hornblast. Zuki's eye left Dusty's fumbling hand and found Levi's more agile motions, and she crooned a pair of bowed strings from that pearly radio.
Brillix was already looking bored, so Levi brought Zuki quickly through the crescendo, then spread his arms to the sky: what now?
Her voice sighed like a moist wind:
You must bear north and ride the woodline trail.
Upon the Plane of Worlds a flight of seeds
All seek to colonize this broken jail;
The elves would write their visions in our needs.
Some strangely crunchy Scroll faction has sent
A culture-seed whose promised flower saps
My will to hold your ears in this descent.
I rise, and I shall drop it in your laps!
Timestretching that terminal S, the radio hissed like a deflating balloon.
Dusty pointed forward and right toward the receding treeline. "That's north. Did she just say we're catching a seed?"
"Airborne autofabricators," said Levi, "sent by the Scroll to influence the newborn Backscroll. What I can't figure is, we're not in the Backscroll — we're on the Gameboard. So what exactly are we getting?"
Brillix hopped in the carriage. "Something related. That's all we need to know."
Dusty reached to his heart to clutch the locket, and then remembered that he had only seen it in the sky.
Into the yellow land ahead, Levi sang of blue water, and Crudthunder surged.
Perelyx and Crafton climbed a path of shiny overkilned bricks and half-circled an airdrinking watertower, its great wavy condensers shaped like flowerpetals, its tank patched from steel and copper scraps and spraying leaks in sprightly jets feeding tufts of riotous weeds.
"If the meaning of life is to untangle my neuroses, doesn't that mean, as soon as I'm cured, my life is over?"
"Of course. The self is a pumpkinstem which breaks with the raising of the fruit."
"Then who wants to carve me?"
"Or eat you." She took his hand.
They came down a rusty jarlid path into a street that forked and zagged like a crack in pavement. Orange flowers blazed like old suns on vines that burrowed in a streetfront of cloth.
Crafton muttered, "Who's afraid of the big bad moth?"
Through a quilted arch and up a short corduroy stairway, he followed her into a pavilion centered on a living redcedar treetrunk, grown to hold the floor on its haunches and raise in its arms the roof, a hippie circustent of garish parachute airsilk.
Perelyx said, "Meet my subtribe," and gazes glowed from faces in silkstained sunlight.
From a table holding some elaborate boardgame, a couple rose to greet Perelyx. They all stepped on each other's feet.
The man turned to Crafton. "I'm Publicus Festivus, and this is Publyx Catatonia."
"Publyx," Crafton said. "Does that mean you're politicians?"
"Our official title," Catatonia said, "is Do-nothings."
Festivus explained, "We're the folks who don't like to do anything that our culture considers worthwhile. So they give us culture-making power—"
"Or culture-destroying," Catatonia added.
"—as a hedge against our town veering into some dystopia where everything is useful and nothing is fun."
"Veer," Crafton said. "That's my name."
"Oh," Festivus said, "I had forgotten that."
A little drone like a natty sparrow dropped on his shoulder and declared, "Subtext infraction! You did remember and chose that word to disparage his character."
"No way," Festivus said. "That was totally not my intention."
"Misidentification of self!" chirped the sparrowdrone. "The subself with that benign intention is not truly in charge." Its beak sprung a needle and it pricked Festivus precisely in a neck gland that passed the Egodeath microdose to his carotid.
"Damn," he said, "you're right. Sorry, man."
To the bird, Crafton said, "I thought it was impossible to disparage my character."
The drone tumbled to the floor and lay twitching. Catatonia looked down at it and then up at Crafton. "Cool."
He looked around nervously. "Do we all have to be that careful about what we say?"
"Just him." Catatonia squeezed her boyfriend's hand. "He's on probation."
"But I'm an escaped convict."
"Yeah," said Perelyx, "your position here is complicated. For the moment, you have full asylum as a cultural artifact."
"Not artistic?" Crafton looked disappointed.
Festivus said, "It's funny you should say that."
"Cultural asylum," Perelyx said, "is based on the value of your presence among us, the disaffected."
"If you're one of these people, why is your title not Publyx?"
"The Sludgedutchess is Do-nothing royalty," said Festivus, "only one notch below the Shitking, who rarely emerges from his unredeemable dreamworld."
"They say," Catatonia said, "that the Shitking conducts symphonies of tinnitus."
"They say that he choreographs his eye-floaters," said Festivus. "Anyway, we have a plan to transmigrate you into an artistic artifact. Come and see."
On the far side of the ragtown circustent, from a stout branch on the cedar, hung a comical marionette of the Diabolical Cornerstone, a cringing yet predatory parody of Crafton, three-quarter scale and capering clumsily on its simstrings.
He startled at its likeness and peered at its detail. "How long have you all been planning this?"
"The puppetmaker," said Perelyx, "is a prodigious prognosticator. He's been working on it for weeks." She looked around. "Has anyone seen him?"
"He told me how to work it," Festivus said to Crafton. "You just turn your back and line up any three chakras."
"Which will do what?"
"I'm not totally clear on that," Festivus said, "but it will definitely work."
Leaning toward Crafton, the dreadful puppet leered.
Perelyx called, "Has anyone seen Foxle Spindrift?"
With a machine-gun rip the colorful tentfabric tore. Down with the light of the sunslot coasted a holoplatter whose jets could only slow its descent, and on its back rode the embodied champion Wyzzyx Perceva.
"Crafton," she cried, "it's a trap!"
Perelyx glared. "Do you have any better ideas?"
The platter wobbled its landing to throw Perceva rolling on the pressed tentcanvas floor, then it steadied and sprung the semitactile image of the Reformatrix, her headmistress avatar now kinkless and welcoming.
"Come back," she said. "I'll take care of you."
"Crafton," said Perceva, "I think surrender is your best move."
"You told me she wanted to charge me up and use me."
Perceva wavered. "I think she loves you."
"No." Crafton stepped forward. "You've changed your mind too easily. There's something you're not telling me."
Hummingbird stitchdrones were patching the tentrip, when the sun, through the narrowing slit, projected on the floor a wavering image of a maiden with fairy wings and a jagged halo.
"Cool," said Festivus. "Pareidolia."
"That's not Pareidolia," cried Perceva. "That's my daughter!"
From somewhere there came a second autopuppet. Where Crafton's was shrunken and hunched, Caty's was tall and angular, an uppity cartoon from the far side of the uncannny valley. Her limbs were cast from alabaster plastic and her face molded from pseudo-Hephister, shiny as sugarglaze and rippling white and blue with her stormy intentions. With a balletic hop, she took the spotlight and the sunangel shattered.
Wicked Doctor Veer
If you want to fly
Come and take my ear
I would hear you cry
You must love your fear
As you fear to die
Fearful Doctor Veer
If you choose to stay
I will still be here
Though you look away
Take my wicked eye
I would see you stray!
Crafton started to answer and then awkwardly noticed that the girl was talking to someone behind him. He half-turned and his puppet double hit him like a train.
Face pressed to the floor, he felt the darkness leave him. Standing, he saw the darkness at his feet, the shackles of human substance heavy with conscience.
His new substance was clean as death and tight as a harpstring. And now his beloved came to him, clothed in a gauzy aura by his transpolaric mech-retinas.
Perceva stepped between them and raised a tulip chair. She held its leg like a quarterstaff and wielded its wide foot and back at the would-be lovers. She hesitated.
"Mom can't decide," Caty giggled, "which one of us is worse."
Desperately, Perceva thrust the chairback at the Veer puppet. "You leave her alone!"
From behind, the Caty puppet pricked her fleshmother with a heavy sedative and Perceva collapsed. Over at the tentrip, the stitchdrones unsewed the patch to pass their machiney kin, and the two autopuppets leapt into the sun.
"Resolving!" Desdenova bellowed, her own voice lost to her in the symphony of ether-radio warpbeacons, rendered by Dimple's centurion helmet, its earbuds and eyeflowers, into a birdsong-soundtracked streetfight.
In a cobblestone plaza, a band of barefoot mendicants, whistle-chirping like starlings, ambushed a file of scribes, sullen and black-clad, who fought back with feeble crowsquawks, until one of them made a sound like a raven's waterdrop warble, the others echoed, and they jumped on the shoulders of the mendicants and rode them like beasts up a street and over a wooden footbridge.
Crosswise ran a canal, green and stone-bordered, and there a school of Centrarchidae heard the song and mimicked the scribes' and mendicants' most divine harmony.
The sunfishes carried that watery cover seaward and their timbres wandered as their bodies warped and lengthened into a panoply of saltwater predators.
Desdenova focused, for here only a skilled aesthetic tracker could follow the right fish as the school diverged. Those at the back were too visually insipid, those at the front too aurally hollow, to be warpbeacons at all. That one was too brassy, that one too sallow, but there — its tail lengthening shiny and black, its chin jutting to a toothy pier as it plumbed the mesopelagic, its eyepatches pulsing red and blue. That stoplight loosejaw held the forlorn ecstasy of Radio Wishy. Through that eye, her eye passed.
The hull shuddered as the ship popped to gridspace, and their bodies briefly shook.
"That was a pressure wave," Quint said. "We're not in space — we're in air."
"Simwindows true," said Trixie, and the dome showed a dim bowl of jungle.
Around the ship spun an inverse biosphere, a grand gaiome whose equator was a slow river. Down in the high-grav tropics, trees were lush and stout, but grew dry and spindly in the mid-grav temperate zone, and the poles were swirly nests of dry vines, each centered by a spike of tendrils climbing the zero-g axis.
"Trixie," Torisa said, "where are we?"
"In the Radio Wishy starsystem, also called ex-Suskiksus 6-7. We're three light hours from the beacon, in some L3 ghosttown."
"If nobody's been here for years," Torisa said, "or will be, that explains how we could avoid paradox."
Dez rubbed her eyes as Dimple withdrew the helmet. "So how do we get out?"
Quint said, "I can hack the fire engine to burn through the hull."
Blink raised her eyes to the green bowl. "I won't let you do that. This ecology is priceless."
"Wait," Torisa said. "This gaiome is a top-notch paradox dodge-port. Its size, its remoteness, and its etherspace proximity to a peculiar warpbeacon. Why are we the first ship to find it?"
"You're right," Blink said. "If this were a public exit, it would be already heavy with paradox. It must be a private exit, which means we were expected."
"Trixie?" Torisa looked to the painted avatar, who stood awkwardly.
A knock, playfully rhythmic, came from the airlock.
"I'm sorry," Trixie said, and opened the doors.
Through the starship's stale metallic air came the breath of the woods, and up from the airlock walked Foxle Spindrift, resplendent in a shamrock jumpsuit, trailing an aura of bugdrones, and smirking through his thin coppery beard.
Behind him came an older couple, a woman sharp-faced and sprightly in artsy dungarees, and a man in a scruffy money suit, walking like a duck and staring like a raven through graying black locks.
Torisa fell to her knees. "Nimrod!"
"You know me too," the woman said, looking down curiously as Torisa gaped.
"Who are they?" Blink asked Quint.
"Those two shared a life. Torisa piggybacked her timeline in the faestorm. And that dude is the dead bird from your drawing, who storyjacked a Ladbroke orphan, fifty years ago."
"Blessed be the Space Mother," Blink said, "for these weird times."
"My name," said the woman, "is Fortuna Ripp. And this is our financier, the deadscroll baron Nim Sycorax."
"Financier." Torisa looked between them. "For what?"
"Torisa Rosaluna," Trixie said, and her voice keened with machine feeling. "Mom, I'm so sorry."
All three intruders drew weapons. Foxle held an ambiguously illegal gravcannon, Nim held an antique four-shot spring pistol, and Fortuna held a contraption like an ammonoid seashell, its deep-centered spiral widening to a blunderbuss barrel.
"That's a level four chaos fabricator," Quint said, "and she's level four luck. Look out."
Fortuna said, "Your fantastic adventures, sadly, were only possible through the inevitability of forgetting."
She pulled the trigger, and from the barrel came a tumbling ball of blades. Desdenova was already drawing a paintgun and thumbing the brush to lethal, when the razorbird swerved and plunged into her neck.
Blink drew a sword and leapt at Foxle, but she felt the ship tilt and spill her toward its nose.
Quint dodged the gravcone and grabbed a wrench, but Fortuna held the trigger, and a wild electric discharge smacked the tool before he could throw it. He lay on his back and felt his heart stop.
Torisa was still on her knees, sobbing. Nim put his hand on her head, gentle as a shepherd, and shot a bolt through her temple.
"The elf lives," Foxle said, fingering studs on the fat pistol grip of his gravcannon and lifting his cousin in dizzy suspension. "I will not give true death to Scrollkin."
Fortuna said, "That's not what we agreed."
"But what you actually said..."
"Oh, whatever," she shrugged, "leave her here then."
"Wait," Blink said, "Fortuna Ripp, I know yor son, Levi."
"I have no sons. My husband Malachi surely does, but they would not bear his name." She laughed. "Throw her out."
Blink tumbled in Foxle's gravball out the back hole of the starship.
Drifting toward the treetops, she saw Fortuna poke her head out the open airlock and aim her weapon. The harridan called, "Do you feel lucky?"
And I am asking myself as the Girl Leader goes by like a meteor: "Am I coming up again through the earth as weed or flame or man?"
-Vachel Lindsay, The Golden Book of Springfield
On the wings of cryptocarbon neurochemistry, Cataria fell into the sky. Stars danced around her like nightclubbers snubbing an awkward newbie. Through those indifferent constellations she drifted over a nebula shoal, and skinned her knees on a moonlit beach.
She stood up and turned to the ocean. In the eerie light, waves rolled and crashed in quarter speed, their sound timestretched and rumbling.
"This is a land of myth," she said, "a storyline substrate whose denser threads are less densely networked, like a skeleton."
Shadrach hunched over her Backscroll body like a bug, watching her spaceward glazey eyes and recording her murmurs with his millifab.
I'm walking up the beach now, she said,
Through hedges of seabrush
And up a grassy-banked stream
This world of dream is drinking my embodiment
It grows more real
While I float like a ghost
Upstream the water widens
It darkens under shadows of trees
And I float faster
Sneaking bodyless through cracks in time
A ninefold-speeded demon of this dreamworld!
"You're not a superhero," Shadrach said. "You're losing your grip. Slow down."
I sense the presence of others
And creep up a tributary to the edge of the trees
Out on the plain
The sky is a pincushion
And every pinhead a gemstone of brilliance and fire
These constellations are the bones of yet another world
"No." Shadrach gently shook her.
"Cousin, I hear your dissent. I rise."
It was night on the new-painted Gameboard, and a speedy rickshaw rode the woodsy edge of the plain.
The custard under Crudthunder's hooves grew dusty and gritty, and the trees, once smooth cones like blue matchflames in the moonlight, grew branches and needles.
Dampened by the forest, the savanna bloomed with mushrooms, and horseflies native to neither land fed on them. Some flew too high and were snatched by bats.
"This ecology is too complex," Brillix said. "Something's wrong. We're too close to flesh and too far from dream."
The radio sang:
The holy thrust of story stirs the deep.
Some stratum more of body than of head
Projects its sediments to cloud our sleep,
And turns our dreams to what our bodies dread—
And turns our dreams to what our bodies love.
There is no depth of dungeon of the mind
The holy thrust of story cannot find.
It's coming, from below or from above.
Dusty looked to the sky and blinked. There again, if not its shape, was its vibe, and he heard himself describe it aloud: "A dainty chain-hung treasure heavy with longing."
Brillix saw it rising from the earth and said, "A homesick landshark."
Levi saw a sky-hungry glow and said, "The cracked lantern of some outcast traveler."
The bison looked up and bucked, casting a wave which Dusty braced to ride. For there ahead, barely touching earth, a celestial shieldmaiden bounced, taking with her something from below, and rising to the sugary stars.
Dusty leapt and caught her ankle.
Dug the tinker tugged his junkcart seaward. With both his gaze and his feet on the footrimple before him, the path firmed and widened to hold the width of his axle, and the rubber-studded tires hummed.
"Bear right," buzzed the spellrod. "Ahead there falls the castoff heart of a god."
Now there was nothing around him but faewater. In the corners of his eyes the glassy surface writhed with phosphorescent doodles. Behind him the path from the beach was already dissolving, and ahead it rose to meet his course.
"Straight on, and run!"
In the breast of his jerkin, a hand-sized slit held a scrunchpocket, and Dug whipped out a potion of quarterhorse and quaffed it.
His feet splashed like the paddles of a millwheel on the half-risen path. His thick beard dripped with sweat, and his scent drew runeflies who cheered or mocked him in forgotten alphabets.
He glanced to the sky, and there it was, darkly tumbling, targeting a spot he felt in his bouncing calfmuscles more than saw in his eyes. Did that falling shape flutter?
Dug dug his heels and canted the cart to catch the treasure, which dinged the cork and rocked the axle with the crack of its landing.
Unhitching, he turned to view it, and knew it.
"A named artifact!" he gasped to the spellrod. "You have sent me the unbroken shell of the blade sharper than physics: the Edge of Space."
The yellow gem's dull glow died.
This novel is a fabric of fanfic for the songs of Big Blood, draped over the tentframe of Roger Zelazny. A man comes through a door with a gun, it's Philip K. Dick, and the gunshot is a reshuffling of what-is-what. But this is the headlong plotting of pre-Marlowe Chandler through dreamworlds less nightmarish and more garish.
This is the Book of the New Sun as the Hitchhiker's Guide to my head. It's a cover of Sesame Street's "That's About The Size" in the colors of Thomas Kinkade. It's the light of Andrew Lang's fairybooks behind a stained-glass window of space-opera tropes. It's a Swinburne villainess, clothed in a high-threadcount text-style of Plath-bespattered Seuss, striding up the ramp of Firefly to hijack a journey that falls short of Ashinano's Yokohama and Crowley's Engine Summer, those whimsical heavens.